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Report details avalanche that killed Sandpoint snowmobiler

Mar. 22—The avalanche in the Selkirk Mountains that killed a Sandpoint snowmobiler earlier this month was triggered after the man rode up a steep slope to highmark, according to an investigation by the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center.

The center detailed its findings this week in a report on the March 1 avalanche below Gunsight Peak that killed 54-year-old Lance J. Gidley, of Sandpoint.

The slide started when Gidley reached a high point on a steep slope at about 6,700 feet of elevation before having to turn to ride downhill. After he highmarked, the snow caught him and separated him from his snowmobile, then buried him 4 to 5 feet deep about 75 feet from the toe of the avalanche.

A snowmobiler who was riding with Gidley watched from below as the avalanche began. He tried to outrun the slide on his snowmobile, riding downhill. He hit a tree and was thrown from his machine . The avalanche stopped about 30 feet away from him.

Once it was clear he was safe, he went uphill to search for Gidley. A beacon signal helped him find Gidley, and he dug through the snow to excavate Gidley's head and chest. Gidley was not breathing and showed no signs of life, the report says.

Gidley, originally from Montana, worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 25 years, most recently as a fire engine captain on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest's Bonners Ferry Ranger District. He had previously been a firefighter on an elite interagency hotshot crew, according to the Forest Service.

He was also an experienced and well-known snowmobiler who knew that part of the backcountry well. He was a friend of many of the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center staffers, and the center's report says he was an ambassador for snowmobiling in the local community.

Jeff Thompson, a forecaster for avalanche center , said Gidley had helped the center over the years, including going out with them to check conditions and test snow. He added that many snowmobilers around the region looked up to Gidley.

"I think all of us have learned pointers from him through the years about snowmobiling," Thompson said.

Gidley's death was the second avalanche fatality in North Idaho this winter. Corey Zalewski, a skier from Spokane, died in a slide in the Silver Valley in January.

Nationwide, 12 people have died in avalanches this winter, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Avalanche danger was high in the Selkirks on the day Gidley died. A storm system had started moving through the region, bringing heavy snow and high winds.

When Gidley and three other snowmobilers headed into the Pack River drainage to ride, they planned to avoid avalanche terrain — generally considered slopes that are 30 degrees or steeper.

The group traveled up McCormick Creek and into the Fault Lake area, a big open basin.

Thompson said it's a remote part of the Selkirks that's hard to reach in the winter, requiring side-hilling and crossing multiple creeks.

"You've got to be a really good snowmobiler to make it from the valley floor to get up into the basin," Thompson said.

Gidley lived in the Pack River drainage, just a few miles from the trailhead, and he had a lot of experience riding in the area.

"He knew it inside and out," Thompson said. "That's his backyard."

The snowmobilers stayed on tame terrain for most of the day, according to the report, and were having a good day. At about 3 p.m., two of the riders left. Gidley and another snowmobiler stayed, planning to ride a little longer and then head out.

A few minutes after the group split up, Gidley told the other remaining snowmobiler to keep his eyes on him while he rode up an east-facing slope to highmark.

The report said his route started on a shallow slope that got progressively steeper. He triggered the slide as he turned at a point that was 37 to 40 degrees in steepness, which the report described as "the sweet spot for avalanche starting zones."

Thompson said other avalanches had happened in the area, and that there was a known track. The slide didn't run all the way out, instead stopping before it reached the other snowmobiler.

After trying to rescue Gidley, the other snowmobiler tried to contact the two members of their party who had left. Because of spotty cell service, they didn't receive his messages until they were driving out of the area.

They urged the snowmobiler to get out of the area while there was still light.

His snowmobile was stuck on a tree, so he used a saw to cut it free. The machine still ran, and he was able to ride to the trailhead, which was 6 to 7 miles away, according to the report.

Snow was still falling. The Boundary County Sheriff's Office decided against trying to recover the body that night because of the weather and continued avalanche risk, and instead started a search the next morning.

A team of snowmobilers — including people who had been riding with Gidley — went in to search for his body starting at 10 a.m. The report says 20 inches of snow had fallen since the incident.

The search party reached the avalanche site within about an hour. They returned to the trailhead with Gidley's body at about 9 p.m.

The avalanche center's report says the decision to ride up the steep slope deviated from the party's plan to avoid avalanche terrain. It adds that the group was "stoked" to be out in the woods and was having a good day, and that the excitement may have contributed to Gidley's decision.

Thompson said the day of the slide was one of the first days this year with "really awesome snow conditions."

"Especially on a snowmobile, it's really easy because of the capability of the machine to make impulsive, quick decisions," Thompson said. "All it takes is one thumb-full of throttle and you can be in a bad situation."