Avalanche victims thank rescuers, USFS explains restrictions


BUTTE, Mont. - A search and rescue meeting in Butte got a surprise as three avalanche victims showed up to thank them for saving a group of skiers caught up while skiing in an out-of-bound area. The avalanche happened Sunday, on Red Mountain in the Butte Highlands. Skiers said they were skiing in the area beneath Lookout Point. One person suffered an injured shoulder, but other than that everyone was OK. The 15-90 Search and Rescue group met to talk safety just two days after the rescue, and to their surprise they were joined by the avalanche victims, who thanked them for saving their group but also explaining why they were skiing in a restricted area. Hand shakes, hugs and cookies went around the 15-90 Search and Rescue meeting. Skiers thanked the team for rescuing them after a 12-hour search. "They were so helpful," said skier Amanda Curtis. "And so good about communicating with us so that we knew that we were not left out there all alone, and that people were trying to get to us at every second." Curtis was one of the four skiers caught in the avalanche. She explained they took precautions when they were skiing down Red Mountain that day. "We dug a pit and all four of us unanimously agreed that the conditions were safe," she said. One by one, the skiers descended down the mountain, Curtis was watching her husband ski when, "I saw some snow slough off him, which is normal," she explained. "But also saw that slough turn to waves like water, and so I yelled as loud as I could." One person in the party was injured and after a half a day's wait, search and rescue picked the party up in a Malmstrom Air Force base helicopter. That's when the skiers learned that the area was restricted. "The people there had no idea," said 15-90 Search and Rescue Commander Brad Belke. "And they certainly weren't trying to do anything illegal, they were just recreating." Belke said since the rescue, he's heard of other people going to the same area, not knowing it's out of bounds. "The map is what the Forest Service goes by, and that's what the federal authorities go by. You have the responsibility of looking at that map," he said. Curtis said she's already bought a new map online and will let her ski friends know of the area's restrictions. "I really feel that information about it being a restricted area was really hard to access, and that's not an excuse for us being in a restricted area, but I would not have gone there if I would have had that information," she said. NBC Montana met with the Forest Service to find out why there was so much confusion over whether the Red Mountain area is restricted. Forest Service workers showed us maps of the area and explained the area has been closed for nearly 6 years. But the closure wasn't marked on maps until just last year and no signs have been posted in the area either. Officials said that's because the terrain is too rocky and sometimes people destroy the signs. "If anyone had any questions about these closures whatsoever, they can come to the Forest Service, they can give us a call, they can come to the office and we can show them on a map. The new maps last year in 2013. And they can even purchase one of these maps, as well," said District Ranger Dave Sabo. U.S. Forest Service officials recommend backcountry hikers and skiers check with the Forest Service at least once every season to find out changes in area closures.

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