After Dangerous Early Winter Conditions, Backcountry Beckons

By Beacon Staff

One year and one day after two men died from an avalanche while backcountry skiing in the Canyon Creek area of the Flathead National Forest, people began to file into the U.S. Forest Service headquarters in Kalispell for an avalanche awareness class. More than a hundred people eventually crammed into the room, forcing the stragglers to stand in the back after the last chairs were taken. Accustomed to class sizes of between 10 and 20 people, attendance for the lecture series was the largest the instructor Stan Bones has ever seen.

Newfound Respect

Among those packed into the room was 26-year-old Eric “Dex” Hrubecky, a snowboarder, and his friends.

Will Kulick, center, follows a transceiver signal down Big Mountain while searching for a “victim” during an avalanche awareness drill at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

“We were in the same place as the guy last year when he died,” Hrubecky said, referring to last year’s fatal avalanche on a popular slope outside the boundaries of Whitefish Mountain Resort. “We don’t want that to happen this year.”

Hrubecky has not ventured into the backcountry since the accident, and he admitted he was not sufficiently knowledgeable about avalanches then to have been there in the first place. “I was quite ignorant about it, actually,” he said. But he hoped the class would give him a foundation to make smart decisions when traveling in search of the deep, effortless powder turns that draw so many athletes out-of-bounds and into more dangerous terrain.

As evidenced by attendance at this avalanche class, Hrubecky is among the many skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers in the Flathead eyeing the backcountry with a newfound respect and wariness this winter – and with good reason. On top of the awareness raised by last year’s accident, unusual snowfall patterns throughout the Northern Rockies have, until recently, made for highly unpredictable and dangerous snowpack conditions.

While most powder hounds have been cautious enough to stay out of the backcountry for the first month or so of winter, the dry weather and settling snowpack over the last few weeks is enticing them back. But just because the snow may be safer than it was doesn’t mean the conditions are safe. In many parts of the state, they remain deadly. Last weekend three snowmobilers died in three separate accidents across southwest Montana. And as backcountry traffic here in Northwest Montana increases, ski patrollers and safety officials are preparing for their busy season to begin.

Downright Scary Snowpack

Twenty-seven skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers have died from avalanches this winter across the U.S. and Canada as of this writing. Three skiers have died in separate accidents while inside the boundaries of some of the top resorts in the Western United States. At the end of December, eight snowmobilers died from avalanches in the backcountry outside Fernie, British Columbia, in addition to the three fatalities last weekend in Montana.

The hazardous conditions set up throughout the Rockies early in the season, according to Bones, who also issues the advisories for the Glacier Country Avalanche Center. Warm temperatures that persisted until early December alternately froze and thawed what little snow was on the ground, creating an ice layer. Then in mid-December, temperatures plummeted and several feet of light, dry snow fell across the region.

Andy Burbine, center, demonstrates the proper way to hold and use a avalanche transceiver during an avalanche awareness drill at the summit of Big Mountain.

“We saw a tremendous depth buildup, but there just was not a lot of strength in that snowpack,” Bones said.

While the snow was deep, in the Flathead and surrounding region, it lacked a base. The snow was too light, and made trying to ascend any peaks in the backcountry extraordinarily difficult. Snowmobilers who ventured off groomed tracks found themselves sinking rapidly in deep, unsupportive snow.

Then, in early January, wet weather moved in from the Pacific, dumping heavy, wet snow and rain on the already fragile snowpack beneath. On Jan. 7 Bones rated the avalanche danger “high,” an unusual classification for this area indicating loose snow and slab avalanches were likely across all of Northwestern Montana.

The snow slid almost everywhere, but again, backcountry travelers, by and large, heeded official advisories and abstained from heading out of bounds. Even the slopes of Whitefish Mountain Resort required heavy bombing and reduction work in order to make the terrain safe for the public. As of Jan. 14, the Whitefish Resort ski patrol has used up all but seven of the 25 cases of explosives it typically budgets for a season – some of it on less steep terrain that does not typically require explosives work. Another sustained storm could put the patrol over budget for bombs.

While Whitefish Resort does not track the skiers and snowboarders leaving its boundaries to head into Canyon Creek and other areas, spokesman Donnie Clapp said it has only been in the last few days that he has heard of people heading out into the backcountry.

The Untracked Slopes Beckon

At the final field session for the Forest Service’s avalanche class last Saturday morning off the summit of Big Mountain, the slopes of surrounding mountains carved with the S-shaped turns of skiers were evidence that the backcountry season in the Flathead has undeniably begun.

Students broke off into groups and rotated from station to station as Flathead Nordic Ski Patrollers drilled them on walking a probe line, using transceivers effectively and efficient methods to dig for buried bodies. Couch cushions were buried beneath the snow to simulate for students the “spongy” feeling encountered when a probe finds a person. Instructor Dena Rissman demonstrated how kneeling on the slope below a buried body and shoveling snow horizontally behind the rescuer allows for faster digging than simply trying to dig a hole six feet down into the snow before a victim suffocates.

Jill Hoxmeier, right, pushes a probe into the snow to the extent of its length while searching for “victims” in an avalanche awareness class probe line drill at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Underlying all of the exercises was the knowledge that performing such a search in the wake of real avalanche, with a friend or loved one buried, would be a terrifying and urgent operation compared to the comity of the drills.

“If you think this is chaotic, this is nothing,” Ann Piersall, another nordic ski patroller, told a group as they began a mock search with beacons and probes.

As the avalanche advisor for the Glacier Nordic Ski Patrol and a backcountry ski guide offering tours in Glacier National Park, Greg Fortin has been on his fair share of search and rescue operations in the Flathead. But with the exception of a few lost snowboarders beneath Hellroaring Basin and a snowmobiler who was knocked off his sled by a small slide in Canyon Creek, it’s been a quiet winter for the Nordic Ski Patrol so far.

“To this point they’ve been kind of laying low and it does concern me that everybody’s going to think it’s good to go,” Fortin said.

Conditions are improving, but remain highly variable throughout the region, Fortin said, with some unstable areas on north-facing aspects, and some higher elevation slopes that have yet to slide, as of this writing. These sections are particularly dangerous, Fortin noted, because the snow at lower elevations can be safe and stable.

“I just hope people don’t get overconfident because the lower elevations are rock hard,” Fortin said. “There are places that are safe and there are places that aren’t.”

It remains to be seen what the graduates of classes like the Forest Service’s, and the myriad other seminars and classes throughout the valley, do with their newly acquired information. Fortin cautioned that a little knowledge can induce a sense of false confidence in a backcountry skier, snowboarder or snowmobiler, and statistics show most avalanche victims possess some kind of snow safety education.

“Experience is going to get them that knowledge,” Fortin said. “But it’s always a fine line between gaining experience versus making a big mistake that can cost you.”