New Check Stations Urge Backcountry Preparedness

By Beacon Staff

A few weeks ago, members of the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol conducted an informal survey at Flower Point, a popular section of bountiful sidecountry near Whitefish Mountain Resort. In a 90-minute span on a Sunday afternoon, patrollers counted 160 skiers and snowboarders who traveled beyond the resort’s boundary in search of fresh powder. Fewer than 50 people, or only 30 percent, were wearing avalanche transceivers, or beacons.

“It’s pretty amazing how many people are entering the backcountry that don’t have them still,” said Steve Burgland with the Flathead Nordic Patrol.

There have been 14 avalanche-related fatalities in the U.S. since Dec. 24, according to the American Avalanche Association. None have occurred in Montana so far this winter, compared to six deaths a year ago. But the threat remains, as evidenced by three close calls and one serious injury in Northwest Montana in recent months.

Among education efforts to promote safe travel in the backcountry, the Flathead Nordic Ski Patrol and U.S. Forest Service are both installing the area’s first avalanche beacon check stations at seven locations across Northwest Montana. The beacon checkers allow recreationists to ensure their devices are working properly, like sufficient battery life. The stations are also intended to offer a stern reminder to recreationists without transceivers.

“Backcountry skiing is such a big draw anymore,” Burgland said. “This is a great education tool for people. They look at the signage and the ones that don’t have beacons, hopeful they’ll say, ‘we really should get one.’”

Money raised at the annual Northern Rockies Avalanche Safety Workshop in Whitefish helped fund the check stations and other education measures.

The Nordic patrol and Forest Service had separately begun looking into check stations and collaborated on the installs with the help of the workshop’s board members and Whitefish Mountain Resort.

The final stations were installed last weekend. They are located at seven popular areas for backcountry recreation in the winter: on the Westside Hungry Horse Reservoir Road; at Challenge Creek Road near Marias pass on U.S. Highway 2; at Canyon Creek Road up the North Fork Flathead River; at Flower Point near Big Mountain; in Essex at the trailhead of the Marion and Essex drainages; at the Taylor Creek Road exit near Hellroaring Peak at Whitefish Mountain Resort; and the resort’s exit for snowmobilers.

“This lets the people who have (beacons) know they’re working, because a lot of people go out with weak batteries or old transceivers,” Burgland said. “The proper procedure before you go into backcountry is to check units within your group.”

Earlier this winter, a skier from Missoula suffered substantial injuries after being caught in a human-triggered avalanche on Elk Mountain in Glacier National Park. The skier was not wearing an avalanche transceiver. He was partially buried and sustained a broken arm, six broken ribs and head lacerations on the afternoon of Jan. 8. The local hazard conditions rose to “considerable” that day, according to an advisory from the Flathead Avalanche Center.

As of March 7, avalanche conditions were “moderate,” according to the FAC.

Entering these finals months of good snow, Burgland urged recreationists to avoid complacency even if the snowpack conditions may seem stable.

An average of 25 people a year have died in avalanches in the last decade, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

For more information about local avalanche conditions, visit the Flathead Avalanche Center’s website at www.flatheadavalanche.org. For more information about the Flathead Nordic Ski Patrol, visit www.flatheadnordic.org.

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