2 mountain climbers die after Montana avalanche

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Montana logged its first avalanche death of the 2017-18 season south of Bozeman Saturday.

Two skiers — accomplished mountaineer Hayden Kennedy and his girlfriend, Inge Perkins — trekked to the upper reaches of Imp Peak in the southern Madison Range. Around 10,000 feet above sea level they accidentally dislodged a mass of snow 150 feet wide, 300 feet long, and 1 to 2 feet deep that buried Perkins. Kennedy could not find her and hiked out of the area.

Gallatin County Search and Rescue recovered 23-year-old Perkins’ body on Monday from the area about 20 miles southwest of Big Sky. She was found buried beneath 3 feet of snow.

Kennedy survived the slide, but “not the unbearable loss of his partner in life.”

“He chose to end his life,” Kennedy’s family said in a statement. Officials say 27-year-old Kennedy of Carbondale, Colorado, was found dead Sunday at a residence in Bozeman.

Hayden Kennedy’s family said he and Perkins had recently moved to Bozeman where he was working on his EMT certificate and she was completing her bachelor’s degree in math and education at Montana State University.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” said local avalanche expert Zach Guy. While the season is early, “there’s no time of year when avalanche fatalities are acceptable.”

Guy, director of the Flathead Avalanche Center, says it’s too early to draw clear lessons from the tragedy, but urged local skiers and others venturing into the higher terrain to prepare for similar hazards.

“If folks are venturing into snow-covered slopes, just treat it as you would in the middle of winter,” Guy told the Daily Inter Lake. “Bring appropriate gear [and] check conditions.”

Any terrain “steeper than 30 degrees that’s covered in snow” could trigger an avalanche, he added.

“We say, ‘Get the Picture,’ meaning, look around for avalanche activity [and] red flags such as rapid warming, wind loading” – wind moving snow to the calm side of ridges and other obstacles – [and] heavy snow,” Guy explains.

He also recommends consulting the Center’s website for advisories before heading out the door. Its most recent local advisory, published Oct. 2, re-iterates that “avalanche accidents can happen long before the chairlifts start spinning.” But “early season instabilities” are “generally confined to the highest elevations.”

Recent years have also seen advancements in high-tech protective gear, like beacons that transmit a buried skier’s location and wearable airbags that help lift a person to the surface of a slide.

Although this equipment can boost the odds of survival. Guy makes clear that “the gear is just a tool like your seat belt. It doesn’t mean that you have an excuse to drive recklessly because you’re wearing a seat belt.”

The full range of snow safety measures, he continued, and registration for upcoming avalanche safety classes, are available at the Flathead Avalanche Center’s website, www.flatheadavalanche.org.

111 people have died in Montana avalanches since record-keeping began in 1951. The count has ranged from just one in some years to 10 in 2002.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or 758-4407. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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