Snow-seekers willing and eager to go further than a ski resort’s boundaries are ramping up risk as well as distance, and a spate of recent avalanche-related deaths and incidents has driven the importance of snow safety to the fore, prompting experts to issue stark warnings about the potential hazards.
In the Flathead Valley, a host of resources provide backcountry users with tools and knowledge that could save lives, but careful, conservative decision-making is a fundamental component of safe winter backcountry travel.
Erich Peitzsch, interim director of the Flathead National Forest’s Flathead Avalanche Center, explained that the uptick in avalanche activity in the Flathead, Swan and Whitefish mountain ranges follows a series of dense, wet snowstorms that blanketed the mountains after a cold snap compromised a base layer in January.
“That cold snap really weakened the surface snow, and then we had a bunch of storms on top of that. That started a large avalanche cycle pretty much in every mountain range around here,” he said.
The Flathead Avalanche Center issues avalanche advisories on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, and provides detailed information about snowpack conditions on its website at www.flatheadavalanche.org.
The center covers about 3 million acres of terrain, from Soup Creek in the Swan Range north to Red Meadow in the Whitefish Range, as well as the Middle Fork and southern Glacier National Park areas.
Those resources are particularly relevant following the latest in a string of avalanche fatalities in the West.
On Feb. 22, a 49-year-old man was killed in a backcountry avalanche while snowmobiling about 15 miles southwest of Troy, in the West Cabinet Range near the Idaho-Montana border. Bryan William Harlow was snowmobiling with three other men when two of them were caught in a soft-slab avalanche large enough to destroy a car.
One of the riders was buried with only his face exposed and was pulled to safety uninjured by one companion. Harlow was found under some four to six feet of compacted snow and was not breathing when he was freed, according to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department.
Less than a week earlier, a snowmobiler triggered a massive avalanche in the Canyon Creek drainage near Whitefish Mountain Resort. That slide was roughly 900 feet wide and ran 700 vertical feed downhill, partially burying four individuals who survived.
“Those guys got lucky,” Peitzsch said.
Including Harlow, avalanches have killed 17 skiers and snowmobilers in western states in less than two months. Nine deaths were recorded in the same period last year.
Adding to the hazard is the nature of the slides, called persistent slab avalanches, in which a layer of snow loses its bond to an underlying weak layer. In the earlier stages of persistent slab instability, the avalanches are easily triggered and often occur naturally. As the weak layer becomes more deeply buried, however, the avalanche becomes more difficult to trigger.
“Then you’re just waiting for the trigger, and that’s a snowmobiler or a skier. Persistent slabs are harder to assess because the obvious signs like collapsing or cracking are just not showing up. The snowpack isn’t really screaming at you about instability, it’s just kind of lurking there and then all of a sudden it rears its ugly head,” Peitzsch said.
Peitzsch, who earned a master’s in snow science at Montana State University, works as an avalanche specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Glacier National Park. Much of the time he invests at the Flathead Avalanche Center is volunteer, and he relies on reports from trusted sources to generate the avalanche forecasts.
Ted Steiner, an avalanche forecaster with BNSF Railway, regularly submits field observations to the avalanche center related to avalanche snowpack and weather.
On March 6, Peitzsch and Steiner will deliver presentations at an avalanche awareness community event at the Moose Lodge in Whitefish, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Steiner will talk about risk assessment and evaluating avalanche hazards in the backcountry. While there’s numerous resources in the valley to help winter backcountry users assess that risk, some recreationists simply are not armed with enough information to safely tour backcountry terrain.
“One of the biggest problems is that some people just don’t have the skills to make a call or assess what the avalanche probability is,” Steiner said. “I would tell then not to terrain with more than a 30 percent slope angle. I’d rather see them have a good time on a shallow slope level versus be injured or killed in conditions that they didn’t know existed.”
Brad Lamson, an avid backcountry skier and a committee member of the annual Northern Rockies Avalanche Safety Workshop, recently helped launch a nonprofit organization, Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center, to support the Flathead Avalanche Center and promote avalanche safety resources.
Lamson said the center relies on volunteer hours, including those donated by its small staff.
“We are pretty lucky as a valley to have these and the experts who release updates and advisories when they’re not even working. Erich deserves a tremendous amount of credit, especially because this winter has been unique due to the snowpack,” he said. “It is promising to see the kind of dedication and commitment from the Flathead Avalanche Center to make sure people are aware.”
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