CSAC Avalanche Incident

Southwestern Montana - January 11, 1998

[Official Reports] [Media Reports] [Other Sources]

Official Reports


Yesterday I got the chance to talk to a snowmobiler who was buried in an avalanche in the Rock Creek drainage of the central Gallatin Range on Sunday. His party was breaking trail and he was working on a stuck sled in gentle terrain at the bottom of an avalanche path when he triggered a slide that propagated up and came down on top of him him. The slide was a big...it ran on or near the ground, was about 300 yards wide, and dropped about 800 yards. He was carried 150 yards and buried 2 1/2 feet deep. He was saved by his avalanche beacon and the quick rescue efforts of his party, who found him with the beacon, precisely located him with a probe, and dug him up with a shovel. The primary person who was searching with the beacon was quite familiar with it, and had practiced with it only the day before. They estimate that he was under the snow for 10 to 12 minutes and he was unconscious when he was dug up, but was quickly revived. This story clearly demonstrates that carrying, and knowing how to use, avalanche rescue gear is a potential life saver.


Yesterday we received a report that a snowmobiler was killed in an avalanche near Encampment, Wyoming on Sunday. He was buried for 3 1/2 hours. That story is in sharp contrast to the snowmobiler who was buried in our area on Sunday and was dug out alive by his party within 10 minutes using an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel.

Media Reports

Livingston man survives avalanche

By JOAN HAINES Chronicle Staff Writer

A Livingston snowmobiler was buried alive Sunday -- encased under snow in the Rock Creek drainage south of Livingston for 10 to 12 minutes and unable to move -- and lived to tell the tale.

Kemp O'Neill is now a member of an exclusive club he never wanted to join.

A massive slide that started near the bottom of an avalanche chute buried O'Neill under 2 1/2 feet of snow.

"I never knew something so white could be so black," O'Neill said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

The slab slide was about 300 yards wide. The snow crashed down about 800 yards.

O'Neill lost consciousness at one point. But he was rescued from under the snow by friends in his party who used O'Neill's shovel and probe, the only rescue tools carried by seven sledders. They were able to locate him because he was wearing an radio transceiver -- a device that can send or receive radio signals.

"I would not be alive today if it wasn't for my transceiver, a lot of quick thinking and a lot of luck," O'Neill said.

Karl Birkeland, director of the Gallatin Forest Avalanche Center, marveled at O'Neill's good fortune.

"Not too many people have been dug up alive after being totally buried, even with transceivers," Birkeland said. However, he said, those who are rescued within 15 minutes after burial have a 92 percent chance of survival, he said.

For a while, it looked as if O'Neill's luck had run out.

O'Neill, 37, and several of his friends had gotten stuck in heavy snow on flat land near the bottom of a bowl in the Rock Creek drainage. O'Neill had left his snowmobile -- the one with the shovel and probe on board -- and was trying to free a friend's sled.

The friend began yelling at him.

"I looked over my shoulder, and I got buried by a 10- to 12-foot wall of snow," O'Neill said.

He teaches youngsters to snowmobile safely under a state program, and knew very well he was supposed to use his arms to make swimming motions so he could stay on top of the snow.

But he couldn't do it.

"I tried with all I was worth to get my arms to help me," O'Neill said. "My arms wouldn't work. The snow slammed me to the ground."

He learned later the snow had carried him about 150 yards. He was on his back looking up into blackness.

"I did a lot of thinking down there," the snowmobiler said. "I was thinking about my wife (Lori) and kids (Shay, 8, and Deni, 11) and things I meant to do. I was making peace with myself."

O'Neill, a general contractor, said one thing he thought about was how his wife would carry on financially if he died.

At the same time, he said he had faith in his transceiver and his friends. But he didn't know whether some of them had also been buried under the avalanche.

Fortunately for O'Neill, the friend who found him, David Lanzendorf, had practiced using his transceiver the day before. Lanzendorf found O'Neill's general location with the beacon, then used a probe to find his body.

It took about four minutes before O'Neill was able to open his eyes and several attempts before he was able to talk. At one point, Lanzendorf told O'Neill, "I didn't realize lips turned that dark a blue." His friends built a fire, and O'Neill sat near it and gathered his thoughts.

He advised all snowmobilers to carry transceivers and rescue equipment with them. It doesn't make sense to pay $4,000 to $5,000 for a sled, then refuse to put out $200 for a transceiver that could save a life, he said.

O'Neill said he was surprised there was an avalanche at Rock Creek, which is about 35 miles south of Livingston in the Gallatin range. He'd been traveling to that spot for nearly 20 years, he said.

But he and his friends did overlook some warning signs, he said.

"It was snowing real heavy," O'Neill said. One snowmobiler had felt the snow settle under him, a sure sign of a weak snowpack.

"You know better, but you choose not to pay attention," he said.

Still, O'Neill said, he lived through the nightmare.

"Me and my guardian angel, we pulled it off," he said.

Other Sources