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EPA's Montana director dies from fall on Snowshoe Peak

by Canda Harbaugh & Western News
| August 21, 2009 12:00 AM

A 64-year-old Environmental Protection Agency official died after falling off a cliff Thursday night while descending Snowshoe Peak with a fellow hiker, law-enforcement officials confirmed.

John Wardell, director of the Montana Operations Office for the EPA in Helena, slipped and fell approximately 200-300 feet, according to Capt. Roby Bowe of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.

Wardell's friend was able to reach him and determine that he was badly hurt, Bowe said. The man estimated that it took nearly three hours to get down the trail and call for help.

Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office received the call at about 7 p.m.

David Thompson Search and Rescue, sheriff officers, the U.S. Forest Service and ALERT helicopter responded. It was dark by the time the Forest Service and ALERT helicopters located Wardell.

“It was too dark to send rescuers due to the terrain – the cliffs and slippery slopes,” Bowe said about the area, which is just above Leigh Lake, southwest of Libby.

An additional helicopter from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls responded at about midnight but was also unsuccessful in a rescue, Bowe said.

Wardell was not reached until late morning or early afternoon on Friday, Bowe said, when a thunderstorm finally subsided and allowed a Malmstrom helicopter to respond. The Forest Service helicopter landed and

released rescuers on the ground within a half-mile of Wardell, while the Malmstrom chopper dropped a medic beside him.

He was pronounced dead at the scene, Bowe said.

Wardell was an avid hiker who was in good shape, according to Bowe, but the Snowshoe Peak terrain has caused injuries and fatalities in the past.

“It’s one of our more active search-and-rescue areas,” he said.

Mike Cirian, the EPA field leader in Libby, worked with Wardell.

“It’s a tragic loss for everybody in the EPA family,” he said, “as well as his own family.”