A massive, 1,750-foot wide avalanche in the South Waldron Creek drainage claimed the life of a 35-year-old Choteau man, snowmobiling in a party of four on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest more than 25 miles west of Choteau on Jan. 5.
Sheriff Keith VanSetten on Jan. 6 said that Eric Greyn, an experienced snowmobiler, died after being buried beneath two feet of snow for about three and a half hours. An autopsy is being done to determine the cause of death.
Greyn, a 2002 Choteau High School graduate, lived in Choteau with his wife, Andrea, and three sons, Jagger, Maddox and Trent. He worked for the family business, Greyn Fertilizer.
VanSetten, Teton County Search and Rescue Unit Cmdr. Ben Rhodes, Deputy/Coroner Mark Grove and search and rescue members Charles Hlavac and Melissa Moyer met with the Acantha Sunday night to detail what had happened in the fatal accident.
Based on interviews with the other members of the group, VanSetten said three members of one family, a grandfather, father and child, were planning to snowmobile in the South Waldron Creek drainage, a bowl that is commonly used by experienced snowmobilers in the area. The drainage is 5.5 miles from the Teton Canyon Road and takes at least 40 minutes to reach from the road.
The first three members of the party had been snowmobiling for a while in the lower part of the bowl when Greyn joined the group. Then he and the other adult ranged farther up the bowl while the grandfather and child stayed in the lower area.
The avalanche occurred at about 3:42 p.m., shortly after Greyn had arrived. The grandfather and child were at the bottom of the bowl and witnessed the avalanche start at the top of the mountain and roar down, blasting trees and rocks as it careened down the 35-degree to 40-degree east-facing slope.
VanSetten said Greyn and the other adult snowmobiler were caught in the avalanche which happened with blinding speed, lasting only about a minute. One of the snowmobilers, who stayed on his snow machine, was thrown into some trees and landed mostly on top of the debris.
Greyn, who was separated from his machine at the time the avalanche impacted him, was swept under as the snow thundered down and was carried some 150 yards from where he was when the avalanche started.
While other members in the group did have avalanche transceivers, Greyn did not have one on. Within moments after the avalanche settled, the other three started searching for him. One of them snowmobiled up the bowl until he was able to get a cell phone signal and called the Teton County Sheriff’s Office to report the missing snowmobiler.
VanSetten said the call came in at 4:07 p.m. Dispatch contacted Rhodes at 4:11 p.m. and he immediately contacted Hlavac of Choteau, a member of the S&R unit who previously worked as the manager of the closed Teton Pass Ski Area and who is trained in avalanche response.
The location of the avalanche in South Waldron Creek drainage is about two drainages south of the ski area and about two air miles from the ski lodge.
The Sheriff’s Office immediately dispatched two deputies with snowmobiles and began mobilizing the search and rescue unit. The first wave of responders reached the area where the group of four had parked on the Teton Canyon Road at 5:32 p.m. Hlavac went with help to get several more snowmobiles and a rescue toboggan from the ski area. A half dozen rescuers headed out in darkness for the 40 minute ride to the avalanche scene.
Hlavac waited at the staging area for about another 20 minutes until Moyer arrived with their trained search dog; then they and other responders also headed out to the avalanche scene.
In the meantime, the first group of responders reached the avalanche scene. With the other two adult snowmobilers, they formed an eight-person probe line, at arms length from each other, starting at the bottom of the slide and moving upward. Each rescuer had a probe and probed in front and to either side before stepping forward and probing again.
After about 20 minutes of probing, they found Greyn on their first pass at about 7:10 p.m., dug him out of a two-foot snow cover and immediately began CPR though he was already unresponsive and had no pulse.
They loaded Greyn onto the rescue toboggan and began the arduous trip out. Rescuers took turns in two-minute shifts, continuing chest compressions all the way to the road, where the Choteau ambulance crew took over and transported Greyn out of the mountains to the South Fork turnoff where they met Mercy Flight.
Two members of the Mercy Flight crew joined the ambulance crew and they transported Greyn to Benefis Teton Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Hlavac said the avalanche occurred in an area where the snow high up on the east-facing slope is “wind loaded” and measured five to six feet in depth. The avalanche occurred when a weakened layer of snow, about 11 inches above the ground, gave away and the entire snow load released, leaving the upper slopes bare down to ice and rocks and piling up snow at the bottom of the avalanche more than 10 feet deep in places.
A preliminary observation on the avalanche from the Flathead Avalanche Center on Monday described the event as “a very large, hard slab avalanche (could bury/destroy a car and break trees). The crown extended approximately 1,750 feet across two east and east-southeast facing bowls at about 7,800 to 7,900 feet elevation. It varied from one to five feet deep, with an average depth of roughly three feet. The debris ran 700 to 800 vertical feet.”
Hlavac said there is a golden 15-minute period when someone is buried in an avalanche. If rescue occurs within that time, there is a 90 percent chance the victim will survive. After only 30 minutes, the chances of survival drop to 30 percent.
Rhodes said the rescue effort involved more than 30 people, including two teams on 10 snowmobiles. Those responding in addition to the search and rescue members included the Choteau ambulance crew, deputies, the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Ranger District law enforcement officer, the Fairfield Volunteer Fire Department technical rescue team and members of the Choteau Volunteer Fire Department.
In addition, volunteers with snowmobiles turned out from across the county, wanting to help, Grove said. He compiled a list of 15 volunteers who could be deployed over time if the search stretched into a second day. Deb Coverdell, the county’s Emergency Medical Services and Disaster and Emergency Services, and Cathy Sessions, the county’s public information officer, also responded.
Outfitters Dusty and Danelle Crary volunteered to open their guest ranch to feed and house searchers, if necessary.
VanSetten said, “We have a bunch of dedicated people who have trained very hard, who do a great job.”
Rhodes said one of the rescuers in the group that found Greyn had taken an avalanche rescue class from Hlavac last winter and knew what to do. Hlavac said the first group in, who included another person with level two avalanche rescue training, executed the probe-line procedure “text book.”
While the entire Choteau community is mourning the loss of Greyn, many of the rescuers are taking the loss especially hard because no matter what they did, they could not save Greyn — someone many of them knew.
Speaking to a group of 30-some responders late on Jan. 5 at the Courthouse Annex, VanSetten told them that they had done everything possible to save Greyn and had mounted an efficient and capable rescue response.
Hlavac said the lead investigator with the Gallatin Avalanche Center had called him on Sunday morning, and wanted him to know what an extraordinary job that he thought they had done to effect a rescue and recovery of a person fully buried without a beacon at night.
On Sunday, Hlavac reached out to the Flathead Avalanche Center in Kalispell to request help in performing an objective accident investigation of the incident. Additionally, a strong local group of snowmobile riders went up to extricate the two sleds that had been mostly buried by the slide.
Hlavac said Greyn was the third person to die in an avalanche in the United States so far this winter. One person died in Wyoming earlier and another died in Colorado on the same day as Greyn.
“Much of the state has an avalanche concern right now,” Hlavac said. “The Gallatin and the Flathead are showing moderate, considerable, and even high avalanche conditions throughout the state.” The Rocky Mountain Front mountains are known for a thin, shallow snowpack that creates and harbors weaker snow layers that result in more frequent avalanches, Hlavac said.
Hlavac said everyone using the backcountry for winter recreation — whether snowshoeing, cross-country or alpine skiing or snowmobiling — should carry critical avalanche survival gear including a beacon, a shovel and a probe. “These are the three items you should never go into the backcountry without,” he said. Backcountry recreationists should always travel in a group and they should all practice using their safety gear.
Moyer said that other gear including the airbag backpacks and avalanche “lungs” are more tools that can be helpful but don’t replace a shovel, beacon and probe. And, she said, even if you’ve read avalanche condition reports and dig snow test pits, “you can never be 100 percent certain.”
Hlavac said that the avalanche transceivers or beacons work as both signal senders and receivers. The transceivers emit a signal while in use, but can also be switched to “search” mode and will hone in on other transceiver signals within a 50-meter range making them a vital tool to find someone who has been buried.
Greyn’s funeral is set for Jan. 10 at 11 a.m. at the New Life Church in Choteau.
His high school classmates, many of whom still live in Choteau, have established a gofundme.com page to take donations for the couple’s three young boys.
“Our community lost an incredible person and a family has lost their stability,” the class wrote on the gofundme website. “As they lean on one another during this time, we hope to provide what support we can to Trent, Maddox and Jagger.”
The class said donations will be given to the family. Sometime in the future, the class hopes to establish a memorial in Greyn’s honor. To find the site and make a donation, go to www.gofundme.com and search for “Eric Greyn.”