The 44-year-old Bozeman man killed in a weekend avalanche near Cooke City was remembered Monday as “a great colleague, a great conservationist and good friend.”
David Lee Gaillard was the Northern Rockies representative for the Defenders of Wildlife, said Mike Leahy, the conservation group’s Rocky Mountain regional director.
“David was a real leader in conservation of smaller predators—lynx, wolverines, fishers and martens,” Leahy said. “He was very well respected, very fun loving. Our thoughts and prayers are with David’s family, as we try to grapple with the loss ourselves.”
Park County Coroner Al Jenkins identified Gaillard as one of two men killed Saturday by separate avalanches near Cooke City.
Gaillard had been cross-country skiing with his wife, Kerry Corcoran Gaillard, southeast of Cooke City when the avalanche occurred about 2 p.m. After he was buried, his wife was unable to find him. She traveled back to Cooke City to report the accident, and emergency searchers recovered his body.
Jeff Gaillard said he had been backcountry skiing over 20 years with his brother, David, who was aware of the dangers of steep slopes, had the right safety gear, and had a deliberate plan to ski in the safer valleys and trees.
“That makes this all the more tragic,” Jeff Gaillard said.
Kerry Gaillard, a Bozeman High School teacher, had been skiing behind David, who was more in the open when the avalanche hit. She said a small slide apparently triggered a bigger slide.
“He was thinking of me first,” she said. “His last words to me were, ‘Retreat to the trees.’ I think he saw what was coming from above, that I did not see. That reflects Dave’s amazing quality -– thinking of others.”
She managed to grab a tree on the edge of the slide as the avalanche went rushing by. It also buried the couple’s dog.
“He was my dear friend,” Kerry said of David, whom she married one year ago. “We were really, really in love.”
The other victim was 46-year-old Jody Ray Verhasselt of Sidney, who had been snowmobiling about three miles north of Cooke City with family and friends when that avalanche occurred around noon.
Eric Knoff, avalanche forecaster with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, said he and a colleague happened to be doing snowpack assessments on an adjacent slope, about a half-mile away, when the avalanche hit Verhasselt. According to authorities, he triggered the avalanche, about 300 feet wide, which ran for 1,300 feet.
“I looked up and saw a snowmobiler trying to outrun an avalanche,” Knoff said. “We saw him disappear in a wall of white.”
Knoff said he immediately called search and rescue in Cooke City, and went to help the two members of Verhasselt’s party.
Though Verhasselt was buried under 4 feet of snow, the toe of his boot was sticking out, and he was uncovered in 10 to 12 minutes. Unfortunately, he was not breathing, so they immediately began cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Knoff said. After about 20 minutes or so, rescuers arrived with an auto-defibrillator. Despite that and about 40 minutes of CPR, the attempt to revive the victim was unsuccessful. It was emotional for the victim’s party.
All three snowmobilers had been equipped with avalanche rescue gear – a shovel, beacon and probe.
The Avalanche Center had issued an avalanche hazard warning Saturday, Knoff said, that the snow that fell Thursday through Saturday had created dangerous conditions and human-triggered avalanches were very likely on all slopes.
Though there have been no new avalanches reported since Saturday, Knoff said the hazardous conditions will remain high for several days because of the heavy load of new snow and weak snow structure.
“When conditions are highly unstable, people really need to be cognizant of any steep slope,” he said. “You’re always taking a risk when you enter avalanche terrain during high avalanche danger. … Most avalanches occur immediately or right after a storm.”
In the later avalanche that killed Gaillard, Knoff said, the couple were skiing with telemark gear off trails in the backcountry, in woods and open slopes. The skier triggered the avalanche from the bottom of one slope that was below a steeper slope.
Knoff said people heading into the backcountry should always follow three rules: 1. Everybody should have proper rescue gear and know how to use it. 2. Only expose one person at a time to a slope. 3. Always watch your partner from a safe location.
In addition to his work with wildlife, Gaillard was co-president of the Irving School parent council and volunteered at the school, leading field trips and sharing his love of the outdoors with students, his wife said.
Gaillard joined Defenders in 2007. He had worked to protect and restore carnivores in the Northern Rockies since 1991, working with several conservation groups, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He had a master’s degree in environmental studies from the Yale School of Forestry.
Gaillard is also survived by his parents, William and Katharine Gaillard of Connecticut; and a daughter Marguerite, 11, a fifth-grader; stepdaughter Silver Brelsford, 15; and stepson Sam Brelsford, 17. The family plans a memorial service Friday at 2 p.m. in the Springhill Pavilion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Gail Schontzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2633.