3 People Die in Separate Avalanches in Montana and Colorado on Valentine’s Day

Michael Westall, 58, died in Colorado avalanche and Craig Kitto, 45, died in Montana avalanche

The CAIC is urging people to check the avalanche forecast before heading out, warning of “exceptionally soft snow pack.”

A well-loved elementary school principal from Montana described as someone who had an “authentic connection with kids,” and a Colorado businessman remembered as "a family man" by loved ones, were two of three people killed in separate avalanches over the holiday weekend. 

The three victims were identified as Whittier Elementary School Principal Craig Kitto, 45, of Bozeman, Montana, according to the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office; Michael “Tony” Westall, 58, from Parker, Colorado, the Grand County Search and Rescue reported and David Heide, 57, of St. Mary's, Colorado, the Clear County Sheriff's office said, CNN reported.

The avalanche that killed Kitto took place around 11:44 a.m. Sunday when he was splitboarding with another person in Beehive Basin, north of Big Sky in Gallatin National Forest. When the avalanche hit, Kitto's partner was able to grab onto a tree, but Kitto was carried downslope, where he was hit by a tree and partially buried with critical injuries, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). 

He was airlifted to a hospital but died from his injuries. The person Kitto had been with immediately called 911 for help. The person did not sustain any injuries and was not buried in the avalanche, People reported.

Kitto has been the principal at Whittier Elementary school in Bozeman, Colorado since 2018. On Monday, the Bozeman School District interim co-superintendents sent out a release about the tragic news to staff and students. “The loss is sure to raise many emotions, concerns, and questions for our entire district, especially our students," it read. The school district had counselors and psychologists available for those students in need.

Kitto’s photo was featured on the school’s Twitter page in celebration of National Principals Month in October 2018. The post said that Kitto had recently lined up a visit from a Harlem Globetrotter.

Kitto's wife, Lana Kitto, told CNN her husband was "a servant to everyone and always put others first.” She also told the news outlet that her husband "lived to love" her and their daughters.

”His desire to live big took him out in a big way. I will love and miss that constant adventuring with him by my side," she said.

The same day Kitto died from an avalanche in Montana, two other avalanches hit in Colorado that led to two more deaths, the CAIC reported.

Michael “Tony” Westall, 58, from Parker, was snowmobiling with his 18-year-old son when he was caught in an avalanche on the east slope of Mount Epworth. The real estate investor was with one of his three sons, The Denver Post reported

Westall was entangled with his snowmobile on the surface of Pumphouse Lake and partially buried in snow and slush, according to the Grand County Search and Rescue (GCSR). When rescuers arrived on the scene, CPR was initiated, but Westall could not be saved, GCSR reported

A family member who said they had spoken to Westall hours before the tragedy called him the “nicest and most generous guy." The father of five was also very charitable and made contributions to many organizations. The Morgan Adams Foundation, which funds children's cancer research, was one of them, the Post reported.

David Heide, a backcountry snowboarder, was the second person killed in the Colorado avalanche on Sunday. Heide was traveling alone and got caught and buried in an avalanche around 9:30 a.m. on a terrain feature known as Pat's Knob, east of Mount Trelease, the CAIC stated.

The Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office says the avalanche came down on 12,477-foot Mount Trelease, CBS4 Denver reported. 

The Alpine Rescue Team and sheriff’s deputies found Heide's body at around 11:40 a.m. in a field of avalanche debris, CBS4 reported. Three civilians found his body. The  Alpine Rescue Team said they were able to ping Heide's cellphone location and found some clues on the surface that allowed them to pinpoint exactly where he was, the news station reported. 

CAIC Director Ethan Greene told ABC News that this winter is shaping up to be the state’s worst avalanche season in modern history. "This season is a 1-in-10-year event in terms of how soft the snow is," which makes it more prone to collapsing, Greene said.

This is the second avalanche fatality in Grand County this season, and the tenth of the season in Colorado, according to the GCSO, ABC reported.

In the last year, 25 people in the U.S. have died from an avalanche, according to the NAC.

The CAIC is urging people to check the avalanche forecast before heading out, warning of an “exceptionally soft snow pack."

The deadliest week in the U.S. since 1910 for avalanches was marked from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6 with 14 fatalities, according to the National Avalanche Center, according to a report.

Experts say a weak base layer of snow combined with an increased interest in backcountry skiing amid the pandemic has contributed to the skyrocketing numbers, CNN reported.