By Dan Whitcomb
Feb 23 (Reuters) - A 49-year-old man has been killed in a back-country avalanche while snowmobiling near the Idaho-Montana border, police said on Sunday, becoming the latest in a string of avalanche fatalities across the U.S. West this winter.
Four men were snowmobiling in a rugged area of the West Cabinet Range about 17 miles (27 km) southwest of Troy, Montana on Saturday afternoon when two of them were caught in an avalanche, the Libby County Sheriff's Department said.
One of the riders was buried with only his face exposed and was pulled to safety unharmed by his companions but Bryan William Harlow, 49, was found under some four to six feet (1.2 to 1.8 meter) of compacted snow and was not breathing when he was freed, according to sheriff's department.
Two of Harlow's friends performed CPR on him while a third rode his snowmobile out of the area to call 911, but he was pronounced dead on the scene by a search and rescue team.
The sheriff's department said that the four men had been aware of the avalanche danger and were taking precautions but that an on-site investigation would not be possible because of the high avalanche risk in the area.
Including Harlow, avalanches have killed 16 skiers and snowmobilers in Western states in less than two months, well over the nine deaths recorded in the same period last year.
Government specialists say the uptick in killer avalanches stems in part from unusually dense and wet snows that have lately blanketed the mountain West after an extended dry spell weakened a base layer of snow laid early in the season.
Federal avalanche centers in Idaho, Montana and Colorado have stepped up warnings as to winter recreation seekers, whose numbers in the snowy back country have grown in the last decade alongside advances that have made treks possible to steep winter terrain that was once nearly inaccessible.
U.S. avalanche deaths have increased over the past two decades, hitting a record number of 36 twice since 2007 in seasons that typically span late fall to late spring, peaking in January and February, according to federal figures.
Avalanches are common in the snowcapped peaks of the mountainous West, where 100-yard (91-meter) slides the length of a football field can travel at speeds of 50 to 250 miles an hour (80.5 to 402 km an hour).
Most deadly avalanches are triggered by snowmobilers and skiers on federal land in the Rockies, Cascades and High Sierras that offers prime and mostly unregulated access to snow. (Editing by Eric Walsh)