CAIC: Colorado Avalanche Information Center

2020/01/07 - Idaho - Wardner Peak, Bitterroot Mountains

Published 2022/03/08 by Jeff Thompson, Simon Trautman - Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center, National Avalanche Center

Avalanche Details

  • Location: Wardner Peak, Bitterroot Mountains
  • State: Idaho
  • Date: 2020/01/07
  • Time: 11:00 AM (Estimated)
  • Summary Description: Multiple skiers caught, 2 partially buried, 5 buried, 3 killed
  • Primary Activity: Inbounds Rider
  • Primary Travel Mode: Ski
  • Location Setting: Ski Area - open area


  • Caught: 8
  • Partially Buried, Non-Critical: 2
  • Partially Buried, Critical: 0
  • Fully Buried: 5
  • Injured: 1
  • Killed: 3


  • Type: SS
  • Trigger: AS - Skier
  • Trigger (subcode): u - An unintentional release
  • Size - Relative to Path: R3
  • Size - Destructive Force: D3
  • Sliding Surface: O - Within Old Snow


  • Slope Aspect: E
  • Site Elevation: 6200 ft
  • Slope Angle: 35 °
  • Slope Characteristic: --

Avalanche Comments

On January 7th, 2020 seven skiers were caught in two back-to-back avalanches at Silver Mountain Resort outside of Kellogg, Idaho. Two skiers were partially buried, five were fully buried, and three were killed. This accident occurred on an open ski run (Figure 1). 

Ski area avalanche accidents are complicated by the potential for multiple burials and many witnesses providing conflicting information.  Our goal in this report is to present the facts surrounding the accident and subsequent rescue. Excellent first hand accounts exist and can be accessed by contacting the National Avalanche Center at 

The avalanches occurred on '16 to 1', a northeast facing slope on Wardner Peak at ~6000 feet in elevation (Figure 2). We do not know much about the first avalanche because the second avalanche was much larger and overran the initial crown and debris (Figure 3). The second avalanche fractured on a weak layer of surface hoar buried near the ground. The first avalanche caught seven skiers and ran approximately 500 vertical feet. The larger, second slide (AS-SS-R3-D3-O) ran ~900 vertical feet and overran the buried and partially buried skiers. The crown of this avalanche was approximately 30 inches deep and 500 feet wide, with a slope angle of 35 degrees. The alpha angle was 21 degrees.

The '16 to 1' avalanches were connected  to another avalanche on the Morning Star ski run by cracks between avalanche crowns (Figure 2). We are not sure when the Morning Star avalanche released, but the snowpack between these two ski runs did not avalanche. The Morning Star crown was on a 33 degree slope, the face of the crown was 18-30 inches deep, ~200 feet wide, and ran ~250 vertical feet. To our knowledge, the Morning Star avalanche did not involve any people. 

The Silver Mountain Ski Patrol conducted avalanche mitigation work with explosives  on the upper portion of Wardner Peak prior to opening '16 to 1' for the day. These efforts did not trigger avalanches on '16 to 1', Morning Star, or other ski area terrain on Wardner Peak.  

BC Forecast

On the day of the accident, backcountry avalanche danger was HIGH and the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center (IPAC) issued an Avalanche Warning for the surrounding area. Backcountry avalanche warnings and forecasts do not cover operating ski areas, but because '16 to 1' had been previously closed to skiing for the season, the forecast does provide a general sense of the day's conditions.

Weather Summary

In essence, the elevated backcountry avalanche danger resulted from  a patchwork of old snow left on shady slopes above 5800 feet in elevation. Extended clear and cold weather at the end of November turned this snow into weak, poorly-bonded faceted crystals, and a storm in mid-December capped and preserved it. Subsequent periods of light snowfall and clear, cold weather created additional weak layers. Larger storms in early January buried these weak layers, doubling the snow depth in the region between January 1 and January 8th (Figure 4). 

The largest of these Pacific storms arrived on January 6th. Natural Resources Conservation Service data from the Sunset (5540 ft, 15 miles to the NE) and Lookout (5190 ft, 20.5 miles to the E) SNOTEL stations suggest the storm dropped 15 to 20 inches of new snow in 24 hours (Figure 4). Strong winds and  temperatures in the 20s F characterized much of the storm, but temperatures rose to near freezing the morning of the avalanche.

Snowpack Summary

IPAC observed a  snow profile in the crown of the '16 to 1' avalanche two days after the slides (Figure 5). During those two days, approximately 10-12 inches of additional snow fell. The ground cover in that area is talus, and depth hoar and basal facets made up the bottom third of the snowpack. Also within that bottom third of the snowpack was a thin rain crust and a buried surface hoar layer (Figure 6). Stability tests suggest that the surface hoar likely failed initially, resulting in the avalanches. The middle of the snowpack consisted of several layers of relatively soft snow, and the upper 20+ inches were new snow from the January 6-8 storm.

Events Leading to the Avalanche

The accident occured on a ski run called '16 to 1'. This run spans much of the northeasterly aspect of Wardner Peak. This area was opened to public skiers for the first time of the season on January 7th. There are two ways skiers can access '16 to 1': across a mid-slope traverse, or via a hiking route to the top of Wardner Peak (Figure 7). 

On January 7th, the Silver Mountain Ski Patrol kept the area closed until just before 11:00 AM. Upon opening the terrain, several groups began side-stepping along the traverse and hiking to the ridge. Witnesses recall that the traverse was not yet established. As a result, the lead skier was breaking trail and moving slowly; at one point, at least 10 people were backed up along the traverse. Several riders skied downhill from the traverse, leaving seven skiers in the group approaching '16 to 1'. At approximately 11:00 AM, the leading skiers made it out of the trees and continued to cut the traverse while others in the group were descending, or preparing to descend. Witnesses report that there were no tracks on the slope at this time. The order of the seven skiers (from front to back of the line) is as follows: 1. Warren Keyes, 2. Carl Humphries, 3. William Fuzak, 4. Ken Scott, 5. Rebecca Hurlen-Patano, 6. Scott Parsons, and 7. Molly Hubbard. Figure 8 is a likely reconstruction of their order and placement immediately prior to the accident.

Accident Summary

The first avalanche broke a short distance above the seven skiers and ran 500-600 vertical feet (Figure 2). Rebecca and Warren were left partially buried and were able to look around, connect verbally, and begin to extricate themselves. Rebecca also remembers seeing Scott’s arm and pole above her (on the slope) and Bill’s helmet below. Bill remembers punching his fist up to the surface as the slide stopped and waving in hopes that someone would see him. Ken remembers being able to see light and could move his right hand enough to clear snow from his face. We don't know what Carl, Scott and Molly experienced during this time. Based on a 911 link from Carl’s phone, it is likely that he was partially buried and was able to dial or voice activate the call, but there is no record of Carl talking to dispatch. Based on Molly’s final location in the debris, it is likely that she skied the skiers right treeline and was struck by the first avalanche as she traversed left across the bottom of '16 to 1'.  

Rebecca was able to free herself and crawl to Bill. Warren worked for a minute or two to dig out his skis and was close to being free of the debris. At this point, all four skiers remember a loud rumbling and shaking sensation immediately prior to being overrun by the second avalanche. 

The second slide was larger than the first. A witness on the traverse described it this way: “The visibility was poor, foggy and snowing -- I was watching a narrow runnel of snow (kind-of like a sluff) moving downslope just past the treeline when the entire mountain started to move … I’ve never seen anything like it … it was loud, 4-6 feet deep … snow moving as far as I could see across the slope.” As the second avalanche overran the seven skiers, Warren was further buried up to his armpits, Rebecca was carried another 25-30 feet downslope and again left partially buried, and Scott, Ken, Bill, Carl, and Molly were further buried under a significant amount of debris. Figure 9 depicts their final placement.   

The second avalanche clearly involved snow above the first slide, but it is not clear if it was triggered from the traverse, from somewhere farther up the peak, or if the remaining slab failed naturally on its own. Skiers coming from the top of the run via the hiking route describe skiing over a large crown and onto the bed surface after the two slides occurred (Figure 10). 

Rescue Summary

A search was started immediately by those on scene. Several bystanders called 911 (shortly after 11am), and more than one individual skied to the closest lift and notified the operator, who in turn called the ski patrol. Rebecca was able to extricate herself. Warren was stuck for 20-30 minutes and needed bystanders’ help to get out.  Scott, Ken, Bill, Carl and Molly were not visible. 

At approximately 11:05 AM, the Silver Mountain Ski Patrol was notified of the avalanche and responded. All witnesses described a chaotic scene. The debris field was extensive, and the rescuers were unsure how many people were buried. Over the next hour, the rescuers found three buried skiers (Figure 9), two of whom survived the ordeal. Bill Fuzak was found with a hasty probe strike approximately 40 minutes after the avalanche. He was buried approximately 7 feet deep and survived. Carl Humphreys was found with a probe strike approximately 45 minutes after the avalanche. He was buried approximately 9 feet deep and did not survive. Ken Scott was found with a probe strike approximately 55 minutes after the avalanche. He was buried approximately 9 feet deep and survived. Rebecca’s recollection of at least two of the partial burial locations (after the initial slide and before the second) allowed rescuers to focus their search and probably contributed significantly to Bill and Ken’s rescue. 

Scott Parsons was found at 6:30 PM by a rescue dog alert and subsequent probe strike. He was buried 12 feet deep and did not survive. At that time, no other people were reported missing. Early the next morning (January 8th), Molly Hubbard's father called the Silver Mountain Ski Patrol and reported he had not heard from his daughter. Her van was located in the parking lot, and the search resumed. 

On January 8th, professional rescuers searched the area with a handheld RECCO search device (from Schweitzer Resort) but did not receive a positive signal. At around 4:00 PM, Federal resources reported that Molly’s phone data indicated she was located in the Morningstar avalanche debris. The rescue team used this information to move the focus of the search, but the phone location data proved to be inaccurate. That evening, an Incident Command System (ICS) was enacted and additional resources were organized for the next morning.

Two Bear Air, a helicopter rescue operation, arrived at first light on January 9th (Figure 16). Their helicopter mounted RECCO SAR detector narrowed the search to a 30 foot by 30 foot area in the '16 to 1' debris. Rescue dog teams indicated the presence of human scent in this area. The inability of either RECCO units or avalanche dogs to pinpoint a location suggested a deep burial scenario. Rescuers began a sequence of fine probing, strategic stripping of snow with a snowcat, and additional fine probing and dog work (Figure 16) . It took three sequences to locate Molly Hubbard at around 12:30 PM. She was equipped with RECCO reflectors in both her jacket and her pants. She was buried 21 feet deep and did not survive.

Figures 11-17 depict the rescue. 


Fatal avalanche accidents are tragic events. We describe them to help the people involved and the community as a whole to better understand them. We offer these comments in the hope that they will help people avoid future avalanche accidents. We do not intend to place blame on any of the involved parties or imply that any particular action or decision would have prevented this tragic event.

The rescue involved many people and resources and several lives were saved. Members of the community, Silver Mountain employees, Schweitzer Mountain Ski Area Employees, Shoshone County Sheriff and Fire, local Search and Rescue groups, and many more helped in the rescue effort. 

Things to consider: 

  • In-bounds avalanches: Avalanche accidents inside operating  ski areas are rare. When they do occur, it is difficult to quickly determine the number of people involved and/or missing.
  • Consequences: The avalanche(s) flowed into a small gully, or ‘terrain trap’, at the base of the run. This resulted in deep burials which complicated an already challenging rescue scenario.
  • Searchability: Carrying avalanche transceivers and RECCO reflectors increases your chance of being quickly located if you are buried by an avalanche.
  • Education: Avalanche education and awareness played an important and positive role in this event. Previous avalanche education and training was apparent in those caught in the avalanche, the people notifying the ski patrol, those initiating  the hasty search, and the volunteers serving on probe lines. 

This report is a cooperative effort between Jeff Thompson of the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center and Simon Trautman of the US Forest Service National Avalanche Center. Silver Mountain Resort provided  information and access to the accident site. Survivors and bystanders provided first hand accounts and perspective. Thanks to the rescuers and to those who helped with this report. Our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the people lost in this event. Please direct questions to