Tragedy on Sphinx Mountain

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Tragedy on Sphinx Mountain

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This article appeared in the 11104 Bozeman Daily Chronicle:

Climbers swept to their deaths

By JOAN HAINES, Chronicle Staff Writer

Two mountain climbers died Saturday when an avalanche swept them down a chute and off a ledge on Sphinx Mountain in Madison County, a law enforcement officer said.

"The slide took them down," said Deputy David Clark of the Madison County Sheriff's Department. "They weren't totally buried. They took two 30-foot falls."

Witnesses told Clark Saturday "they apparently fell 30 feet to a ledge, and then fell another 30 (feet) to the bottom."

Killed were Nathaniel Stevens, 25, and Bryan Nelson, 25, both of Missoula. A third climber, Justin Elliott, also of Missoula, was not caught in the avalanche because he had stopped to tighten his boot, Clark said. He was able to walk out to the trailhead.

The three men were apparently intending to ice climb and were traversing the north side of the mountain, which is in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness southeast of Ennis in the Madison Range.

The avalanche occurred about 9:30 a.m. Saturday during a snowfall. Overhanging snow cornices may have broken off and caused the slide, Clark said. Someone got to the trailhead and notified the sheriff's office on a cell phone. Clark was called at 12:30 p.m.

Four separate parties were on foot in the area intending to ice climb. One of the groups included an emergency medical technician, who was able to reach the victims and determined they were dead.

"I don't know of a fatality (due to an avalanche) in the nine years since I've worked at the sheriff's office," Clark said.

"We made an attempt to get them off" the mountain, he said. Officials called in a helicopter from St. Peter's Hospital in Helena, but it couldn't land. A 15-member search party set out on foot, but was not able to get the men out. Officials on horseback retrieved the bodies Sunday.

Avalanche scientist Karl Birkeland of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center and Forest Service Madison District Ranger Mark Petroni of Ennis went to the avalanche area Sunday to study the snow and assess the danger.

"Southwest Montana had a sizeable snowfall and strong winds on Thursday night," Birkeland said. "That's what created the current avalanche conditions. "In higher elevations, places with wind drifts, where it's deep enough to cover the rocks and trees and bushes, there is a high potential for people to trigger avalanches," Birkeland continued.


The official report on this accident is posted at
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