One man died and another was seriously injured Friday around 1 p.m. while they were backcountry skiing in the Tobacco Root Mountains.
According to Madison County Sheriff Phil Fortner, the man who died was Benjamin Hirsch-McShane, 35, of San Francisco, California.
The skiers were part of a group of four men who had come from Utah and California to stay at the Bell Lake Yurt, according to Drew Pogge, who owns and operates the yurt.
While the yurt's operators offer guided trips, ski mountaineering courses, and avalanche courses, Pogge said the skiers caught in Friday's avalanche were skiing alone and had received a detailed briefing about the conditions before they set off.
“We let people (make their own) decisions," Pogge said. "That’s the beauty of the backcountry. They can take whatever risk they want. But, unfortunately, this ended very tragically.”
The skiers were reportedly ascending a slope in a "heavily treed" area when they heard the snowpack collapse and two of them were carried away in the ensuing avalanche, said Alex Marienthal, avalanche specialist with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.
The other two were reportedly able to grab onto trees to remain safe.
Fortner said numerous agencies and organizations assisted the Madison County Sheriff's Office in retrieving the injured and killed skier, including U.S. Forest Service law enforcement, Gallatin County Search and Rescue, the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, Two Bear Air Rescue of Kalispell, and Central Copters of Belgrade.
Fortner said high winds made it difficult for a helicopter to retrieve the body of Hirsch-McShane, so Central Copters dropped a ski team at the top of the mountain to ski down to the victim.
Marienthal was part of a group from the avalanche center that assisted the two uninjured skiers after Hirsch-McShane and the injured skier were taken from the scene.
Pogge said the injured skier was taken by Life Flight to Billings, where he was "conscious and talking" and in stable condition as of Saturday afternoon.
According to Marienthal, significant snowfall over the past 10 days or so means that "avalanche danger is definitely elevated right now."
Marienthal stressed that it's important for people to know current conditions and be prepared for potential avalanches, and he added that the skiers caught in Friday's avalanche were doing things right.
“This particular group had all that information (about conditions) and carried all the right gear,” Marienthal said.
Pogge said Bell Lake Yurt, which is near the town of Pony, has been in operation for 10 years and had never before had a skier die while staying in it. But, he noted, the risks of backcountry skiing are always high.
“Our hearts go out to these families," Pogge said. "A lot of us have lost friends in the mountains, and it’s never easy.”