The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center monitors the avalanche risk across its advisory area in the Gallatin and Madison ranges. Yellow is moderate danger, orange is significant and red is extreme danger. (GNFAC)Four skiers triggered an avalanche in the Bell Lake area in the Tobacco Root mountains on Friday, January 25. Two were caught in the avalanche and carried over a thousand feet down the slope, causing injuries to one and resulting in the death of the other. (GNFAC)

Avalanche near Pony takes skier’s life

Four skiers trigger avalanche in Tobacco Roots

MADISON COUNTY—A 35-year-old California man died on Friday, January 25, after the group of skiers he was a part of triggered an avalanche near Bell Lake in the Tobacco Root Mountains, south of Pony. He was later identified as Benjamin Hirsch McShane of San Francisco.

The Madison County Sheriff’s Office, Gallatin County Search and Rescue and Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (GNFAC) all responded to the scene, along with helicopters from Kalispell-based Two Bear Air Rescue, Central Copters of Belgrade and LifeFlight.

The GNFAC reports that the group of four skiers were ascending a heavily-treed steep slope when they triggered a large avalanche. The pair highest up the slope was able to hold onto trees, while the two skiers farther down the hill were caught in the avalanche and partially buried.

Data from the avalanche show a weak layer underneath several inches of new snow from the late part of that week. When the skiers disturbed the new snow, the weak layer gave way and a 425-foot-wide slab of snow slid about 1,100 feet down the slope.

McShane died of blunt force injuries at the scene of the avalanche while the other skier who was caught was then airlifted with serious injuries. The other two skiers were not injured.

This is the second of three avalanches so far in 2019 in which at least one person has been caught, but the first of the year to result in a fatality. The GNFAC reports 27 avalanches since the new year in the Madison Range, none of which has resulted in any injuries.

There were more than 100 avalanches in January in the GNFAC’s advisory area, which includes the Madison and Gallatin ranges and the Cooke City area. This includes natural avalanches and remotely-triggered, preventative avalanches, but around 20 percent of the total tally has been caused by recreationists.


Staying safe in avalanche territory

The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest (BDNF) advises recreationists to always ensure that everyone in their backcountry party carries an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe on their person.

In an avalanche situation, the transceiver can help locate someone trapped underneath snow, and the probe can help to determine the depth and stability of snow layers.

It’s also vital to know the immediate and extended forecast for the area you’ll be skiing or snowmobiling in. That also includes the recent past: recent snowfall can hide cracks in the snow surface or other telltale signs of avalanche danger, in addition to adding weight to an already heavily burdened snowpack. And if the days before heading into the backcountry have included a warmer spell, there could be partial melting that further increases stability in existing snowpack, which is then blanketed by a heavy layer of new snow.

The BDNF also advises that hikers, skiers and snowmobilers be on the watch for “whumping,” a sign of unstable snow characterized by cracking or collapsing of snow patches. In areas where cracks or collapsed snow is visible, it’s wiser to seek out lower-grade terrain or a more established trail.

With the proper tools and preparation, the likelihood is far greater that recreationists will be able to identify the safest places to enjoy southwest Montana’s winter activities. 

To learn more about the GNFAC or to find avalanche resources, visit or, which maps the highest-risk areas for avalanche potential including those that are under avalanche advisories. To hear the GNFAC’s daily avalanche forecast, call 406-587-6981.

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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