Custer man dies in Church Mountain avalanche
An avalanche swept down on a party of five snowmobilers cruising through 5,300-foot Excelsior Pass near Church Mountain at 1 p.m. New Years day, killing two and injuring one of the riders.
One of those killed, Danny Woods, 63, of Custer, was “a real pioneer in the snowmobiling community,” according to deputy George Ratayczak of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. “All the search and rescue (SAR) members knew him really well. He was always willing to help out on a search,” Ratayczak said.
Brent Hoelzle of the Whatcom County Search and Rescue (SAR), snowmobile unit, agreed. “He wasn’t officially a member of our group, but sometimes when we’d have a tricky place to get into we’d call Danny and he’d come out and show us how. He was as experienced a snowmobiler as anyone in the area, and his loss is huge for the whole snowmobiling community.”
Also killed was Sheila Rowe, 43, of Everett. Rowe, along with her husband and another relative whose name was not released had been camping with Woods, 63, and his son Ross at the campground near the seven mile bridge on Canyon Creek. The group of five snowmobiled ten miles farther on up to the head of Canyon Creek at Excelsior Pass, a popular area they’d been visiting for over 30 years.
It’s known in the snowmobiling community as a safe place to go, “the safer side of Mt. Baker,” said Hoelzle, “but not this time. With all the snow we had this year there were six to eight foot drifts where it cut loose sending a 20-foot wall of snow a hundred yards wide coming at them at 80 miles an hour. Danny saved one life by calling to one of the Rowe boys to get out of the way, and he just barely did. Ross was buried but managed to self rescue.” He added that when the avalanche let loose, “Danny, Ross and Sheila were just headed in the wrong direction, into the slide instead of out of it. It was just plain bad luck.”
The party found Rowe after looking for an hour, and spent another hour digging her out of the snow. Resuscitation efforts proved futile. They searched another two hours for Woods before calling for help at 3:37 p.m. from the Mt. Baker Snowmobile Club and Bellingham Mountain Rescue. Including family and friends, rescuers led a group of about 20 people who searched until 11:30 p.m. before giving up for the night.
Woods body was located around noon the next day by volunteers patrolling the avalanche area near a tree in about two to three feet of snow, Hoelzle said.
“Danny’s younger son Conrad went back up on Friday [January 4] to retrieve the machines,” Hoelzle said, “and he got buried himself by a slide of a little hill, a nothing little knob. The others dug him out right away, but it was another close call.”
On that same day several other back country travelers were caught and killed by avalanches in B.C., on Mt. Rainier and in Snohomish County. Woods’ death has had its impact, Hoelzle said, “because after this one incident I’ve had more calls from people about mountain safety than I have had in the previous five years. This has gotten everyone’s attention.”