Local Avalanche Education Opportunities Increase

By Beacon Staff

During the past three winters, Flathead avalanches caused four fatalities. The numbers of skiers and snowmobilers in the backcountry has climbed in the past decade – but not all are prepared, experts say. And that has them worried.

Flathead avalanche education started three decades ago, cautioning skiers and snowmobilers about winter backcountry safety. It continues today through Glacier Country Avalanche Center, U.S. Forest Service and Flathead Nordic Patrol. But now private companies are introducing even more opportunities. “You just can’t get too much education or practice,” said Ben Stormes, owner of the new Whitefish Backcountry that specializes in wilderness and avalanche education.

Last winter, a slide on Fiberglass Hill in Canyon Creek killed two skiers. In 2006, an avalanche roared down across Red Meadows Lake, killing two snowmobilers. While some snow travelers live through slides, survivors are rare. “People don’t survive avalanches,” said Stormes. “It’s the minority who do.”

Avalanche experts point to the human factor as a major cause of avalanche fatalities while terrain, snowpack and weather all play a role. Experts want snow travelers to make informed choices – to pick safe routes, recognize unstable snow slabs and identify weather shifts that affect the snowpack.

Experts also recommend that all skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers heading into avalanche terrain go with buddies with each person carrying a beacon, probe and shovel in case a snow slide traps a party member. But all experts agree that the equipment is worthless if you don’t know how to use it. “Field sessions give you more tools to make decisions,” said Greg Fortin, a Flathead Nordic Patrol avalanche instructor. “You have a five-minute window to find someone and dig them up.”

To provide backcountry travelers with skill practice, the U.S. Forest Service installed a beacon park last winter at the top of Big Mountain maintained by the Whitefish Mountain Resort Ski Patrol. The park features eight buried transceivers; users flip the buttons to search and probe for one or more beacons at a time.

“When you use your beacon for real is not the time to pull it out of a box,” said Patrol Director Tary King. “The more well-versed you are with your beacon and how it works, the faster you’re going to be able to react when time is of the essence.”

This winter, opportunities to learn about avalanches are increasing in the Flathead built on top of the Forest Service’s backbone of free educational programs – Avalanche Awareness, Level 1 and an annual on-snow January avalanche day. Groups can request a presentation of the 60- to 90-minute Avalanche Awareness program; one open to the public is schedule for Dec. 4 at the Whitefish Library at 6:30 p.m. Throughout January and February, the Forest Service also offers the Avalanche Awareness lecture series and Level I certification programs. Find information about these on the Glacier Country Avalanche Center Web site (www.glacieravalanche.org), along with avalanche advisories updated twice weekly.

Greg Fortin, owner of Glacier Adventure Guides that leads ski tours into the park, teaches the National Ski Patrol Avalanche Level 1 through Flathead Nordic Patrol (www.flatheadnordic.org) on Dec. 12-13. But this year, he plans a new follow-up fee class taught Jan. 9-10 for those with some previous classroom education (406-892-2173, www.glacieradventureguides.com).

“It puts together the classroom knowledge with a real ski tour – putting on skins and going for a ski,” Fortin said. “We’ll pick out safe routes and spots to lunch, learn how to ski down the mountain without endangering each other and work a few pretend scenarios.”

Ben Stormes, who earned Level 2 with American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), launched the new Whitefish Backcountry in late November to beef up the education already available. His company teaches backcountry skills and three types of AIARE avalanche courses (406-270-1057; www.whitefishbackcountry.com). “The real message of AIARE courses is making smart decisions,” he said.

Via Stormes’ company, the Whitefish PTA is presenting an AIARE Avalanche Awareness program Dec. 8, 6 p.m., at the Whitefish Middle School followed by the Matchstick Productions film “CLAIM.” Two other free programs are also scheduled at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Dec. 28 and Feb. 15.

“It’s important to learn how to move around in the backcountry safely,” added Stormes. That’s what the education is all about.