Between December 2012 and April 2013, 21 avalanches killed 24 people in the U.S. And while none of the fatalities were in Montana, there were three close calls and one serious injury in the northwest corner of the state.
The previous year, the U.S. saw 27 avalanches and 34 fatalities, including six in Montana, according to the American Avalanche Association.
Accidents occur in the backcountry, and there’s a heightened risk when winter sports enthusiasts recreate in avalanche-prone terrain.
But knowing how to minimize that risk by evaluating terrain and conditions, and by making smart, efficient decisions, dramatically reduces the hazard, experts say.
Enter this year’s Northern Rockies Avalanche Safety Worshop in Whitefish, which will feature a varied slate of five speakers with backgrounds in avalanche forecasting, theory, backcountry mountain guiding, information processing, emergency decision making and other current backcountry information.
The full schedule for the one-day gathering is available online at www.avalanchesafetyworkshop.com.
“The last two years of the conference have been impressive,” said Ted Steiner, an avalanche forecaster who chairs the Northern Rockies Avalanche Safety Workshop steering committee. “Each year more people want to be involved in the learning, networking and camaraderie. And since it’s before the first snow, people are getting excited about winter, and realizing that it’s time to focus getting educated for a solid winter in the backcountry.”
The workshop is $20 beforehand and $25 at the door.
“The focus of our workshop is on risk management and decision making in avalanche-prone terrain,” Steiner said. “The presenters will cover a diverse range of topics that appeal to professionals as well as recreationalists of all levels and abilities.”
This year’s workshop will feature Bruce Tremper, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Utah Avalanche Center since 1986 and one of the nation’s foremost experts on avalanches. Tremper coordinated backcountry avalanche safety preparations for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, and is the author of bedrock mountaineering books like “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” and “Avalanche Essentials: A Step-by-Step System for Safety and Survival.”
“He literally wrote the book on avalanche safety,” NRASW steering committee member and backcountry ski patroller Craig Moore said. “His books are required reading in most avalanche classes. He articulates the odds of survival, the importance of decision making, snow science, all aspects of avalanche safety. He’s just a great speaker and a very well-known name in the industry.”
The last two workshops have sold out, drawing a packed house and raising money to fund important community programs, like the installation of avalanche beacon checkpoint stations to promote safe backcountry travel in the valley.
“All of the extra funds go to avalanche-based community needs,” Moore said.
The beacon check stations are equipped with battery-powered lights that glow green if a backcountry user’s avalanche transceiver is working, and red if it isn’t. The stations are located at popular backcountry access points on Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Big Mountain, and three other points at popular snowmobile backcountry access points in the Glacier View-Hungry Horse Ranger District.
The workshop is geared toward all manner of backcountry users, not just skiers and snowboarders, Moore and Steiner said, and will be useful to people with varied depths of experience.
Other speakers include: Eric Knoff, avalanche forecaster with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman and an avalanche forecaster with Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road Avalanche Program; Colin Zacharias, a certified international mountain and ski guide who has more than three decades of experience and worked as an avalanche forecaster in the 1988 Winter Olympics; LeeAnn Allegretto, the Avalanche Program Leader for Missoula’s National Weather Service; Brian Lazar, deputy director for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and executive director with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Educations; and Seth Carbonari, an avalanche specialist with the Flathead Avalanche Center.
Steiner said the panel of big-name speakers is possible because of the energy generated by the community and the support of dozens of local and national sponsors
“The support from sponsors and the amount of raffle items that have been donated is amazing,” he said. “We’ve been embraced by the outdoor retail community and the local businesses. It’s been a jaw dropper. We are so fortunate to have that support.”
“The workshop is about learning, networking, getting excited for winter and focusing on safety and education when traveling in the backcountry,” he said.
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