I remember watching a family cross-country ski down the street and I remember trudging a mile in the snow with my bag to get home. I remember businesses being closed and the appointment for my taxes being cancelled.
But I also remember screaming. I remember my shovel full of snow and debris and magazines. I remember the sound of the backhoe as it moved mound after mound of snow trying to find three people buried below.
I didn’t hear the ‘whoomph’ everyone else heard. I told my mom that the avalanche must be much farther up the Rattlesnake than I was because I hadn’t heard anything. Several minutes later, my boyfriend’s roommate Catie came to tell me that snow had slid off Mount Jumbo on Holly Street, a mere two blocks away, and an 8-year-old boy was trapped underneath.
Soon we’d learn there were three victims, but we didn’t wait for that. We ran through thigh-deep snow where the sidewalks should have been. We’d have run in the street where the snow was only knee-deep, but vehicles slid precariously along the unkempt side streets the city hadn’t had time to tend during the storm.
The first thing that hit me was the smell of gas as we got closer, we could tell there was a commotion up ahead. I figured the snow had filled an alley or yard where the kid was playing. I kept my eyes on a huge red shape that grew as we approached. I couldn’t make it out until we were less than 100 feet away. It was the entire second story of Fred Allendorf and Michel Colville’s home, tipped over on its side, exposing everything inside. We joined a group of about 20 people and began to dig, moving as much snow as we could. The smell of gas got stronger and we were directed to Van Buren to help clear the street and find the gas line. Soon there were more than 50 people alongside us digging and half as many watching, terror-stricken, as emergency personnel and volunteers alike worked to save the three victims buried by the avalanche.
We didn’t know and didn’t care what had caused it, we were concerned with finding people, not bodies.
Phoenix Scoles, the 8-year-old, was found first and taken to the hospital. It took longer to find Allendorf, who was conscious when he was uncovered from where he had been trapped near the chimney of their home. He said his wife had been two feet from him. Colville was found about an hour later, three hours after the avalanche buried her.
Rumors spread that a snowboarder was to blame. Instantly, even before the news hit the internet, they were vilified. By the time it was online, comment sections were littered with comments about how the snowboarder should be sent to prison, murdered, shot or worse.
The snowboarder who triggered the avalanche was able to escape before it went down the chute and gained speed and slammed into the house at the bottom. The three people recreating on Jumbo that day have been interviewed by police. In light of Colville’s death due to injuries from the avalanche, they could face criminal charges.
Though police have yet to comfirm it, many suspect that those at fault are young adults, most likely university students who had the day off from classes. The situation couldn’t have been worse for them. They triggered an avalanche that buried an elderly couple and a child. The only way it could have been worse was if there was an orphanage at the bottom of the slope.
What needs to come out of this tragedy should not be the ugly hate being posted online. It should be that there is a significant lack of education about avalanche safety and awareness that needs to be addressed. Many skiers and snowboarders who have experience in the backcountry would have known that the conditions weren’t safe, yet many of my fellow powder hounds have said they don’t think of Jumbo as the backcountry.
While it makes no sense why it had to happend to Scoles, Allendorf and Colville, it makes snow sense why it happened. Warm sun on Tuesday and Wednesday created a hard ice crust and blizzard conditions laid down a thick layer of new snow. Extremely high winds loaded low slopes like Jumbo all around Missoula. All it took was one line through the fresh powder to set the slab in motion.
Since Friday, at least three more avalanches of various sizes have occurred in northwestern Montana. Lookout Pass ski area closed due to avalanche danger. According to the West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation’s website, “We aren’t on an area-wide avalanche warning, but make no mistake; there is some very touchy snow out there. Any rain on the snow and all bets are off; the rain’s immediate effect will make the snow less stable.”
A warming weather pattern should remain through the week. Significant snow could fall in the mountains with off and on showers into the weekend. The snow predicted will be heavy and wet, which will only make avalanche danger conditions worsen. The warmer, heavier snow may settle quickly; but the immediate effect of a heavy load, or rain, will destabilize the snowpack. New, heavy, wet snow has already loaded steep slopes in the area and any slope greater than 30 degrees is in danger of natural avalanches, and human-triggered slides are highly likely.