Woman dies after Montana home crushed by 1,800-foot-long avalanche

On Friday, Michel Colville was in her Missoula, Mont., home near the recreational area of Mt. Jumbo. It was 4 p.m. when a mountain of snow raced down the hill at more than 120 mph, smashing her home and sending her, her husband and an unrelated child playing outside to the hospital after a neighbors rushed in to rescue them. 

Colville, 68, died Sunday night of her injuries, Missoula Police Sgt. Travis Welsh told the Los Angeles Times by phone Monday. Colville's husband, Fred Allendorf, 66, a retired university professor, remains hospitalized in serious condition. An 8-year-old boy who was buried in the snow for an hour was released from the hospital Sunday.

The cause of the avalanche remains under investigation, Welsh said. The Missoula Police Department on Monday confirmed that an unspecified number of “snow enthusiasts” who were playing in the area had been interviewed. Original reports said they were snowboarders, but Welsh said more than boarders might have played a role.
"There are currently no charges pending; however, detectives will confer with the appropriate prosecuting attorney’s office regarding the results of the investigation and any potential criminal culpability,” police said in a statement emailed to reporters.

This has been an especially hard winter for avalanches in the West, with heavy snow during a relatively dry winter. An estimated 17 back-country deaths have been reported in states including Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Oregon.

But the Montana disaster was different. Mt. Jumbo is a game range managed by the city of Missoula and is closed to visitors from the beginning of December to mid-March to allow elk to forage. There have been recent thaws that caused the surface ice and snow to melt and then refreeze, creating a slick surface. There has been more snow recently and strong winds, complicating the situation.

The avalanche roared down 4,768-foot Mt. Jumbo and through a neighborhood northeast of downtown Missoula, several blocks from the University of Montana. The avalanche was 1,800 feet long and about 300 feet wide at the crown, Steve Karkanen, director of the Missoula-based West Central Montana Avalanche Center, told reporters last week.

It came down a 35-degree slope and was then funneled into a gully, where it picked up energy, he said. The snow was traveling at between 120 to 180 mph when it struck the two-story house, sweeping it off of its foundation and burying the building shards in the snow.

Dozens of neighbors responded and began digging through the snow, aided by official rescuers who quickly arrived.

Allendorf was found under about 6 feet of snow in an air pocket in remnants of the building. He told rescuers he was within a couple feet of his wife when the avalanche struck. Colville was found about 30 yards away.

But Colville wasn’t in an air pocket and was unresponsive when she was found.

A boy, Phoenix Scoles-Coburn, 8, was buried in the snow for about an hour. He was released from the hospital Sunday.

His 10-year-old sister, Coral, also was playing outside, but was able to dig herself out of the snow.