HELENA, Mont. – Searchers looking for two backcountry skiers used long poles to prod deep snow in an area near a Montana resort where an avalanche killed two other skiers.
A steady snowfall and the possibility of another avalanche forced authorities to scale back their search Tuesday on Fiberglass Hill near the Whitefish Mountain Resort in northwestern Montana.
Authorities do not have any verified missing person reports, but witnesses said they saw two skiers caught in the snow slide. After searching the resort's parking lot, authorities determined all car owners had been accounted for, Flathead County Undersheriff Pete Wingert said.
"It certainly doesn't mean there aren't people up there," he said. "They could have taken a shuttle bus from a hotel. It's difficult to say."
About 20 people used 12-foot-long poles to search a small area that drew the attention of search dogs. The snow was so deep that the poles did not reach the ground in places, authorities said.
A storm moved through the area Monday and Tuesday, bringing another 8 inches of snow, high winds and high avalanche danger. But avalanche experts determined the route to the search area was stable, and teams were on the scene for about four hours Tuesday.
Sheriff Mike Meehan said he decided to scale back because of the weather. More snow was expected Wednesday night.
"I haven't called it off, but I'm not going to risk the lives of searchers, so it's going to remain a somewhat cut-down search," Meehan told KOFI radio in Kalispell.
The slide killed Anthony Kollmann, 19, of Kalispell and David Gogolak, 36, of Whitefish.
Avalanches have killed at least 21 people across the West since Dec. 2, according to the National Avalanche Center. The national annual average for avalanche deaths is about 25. Thirty-five people were killed nationwide in avalanches in the 2001-2002 season, the most on record, according to the U.S. Forest Service.