Check Stations Urge Backcountry Preparedness

Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol installs avalanche 'beacon checkers' to promote safety as hazardous conditions converge in region

By Tristan Scott

The recent piling high of new snow in the mountains around Whitefish has created the first good powder skiing of the season, but the conditions are also combining to cause widespread avalanches throughout the region.

The recent series of snowstorms has covered a weak hoar layer of snowpack, and human-triggered avalanches have been reported almost daily throughout the Flathead Valley, including in popular backcountry ski areas just outside the boundaries of Whitefish Mountain Resort.

The Flathead Avalanche Center reports that the avalanche risk remains “considerable” at elevations above 6,000 feet in the Whitefish, Swan and Flathead ranges, as well as the southern end of Glacier National Park. An avalanche risk of “considerable” means human-triggered avalanches are likely, and they have been reported eight of the last nine days, particularly on steep, wind-loaded slopes.

As the weight of the new snow continues to stress the weak layer in the snowpack, forecasters say the hazards will persist even without new precipitation. Backcountry users are advised to exercise caution and stay away from steep slopes.

“What we are dealing with now is this situation where we haven’t had any new precipitation but we have this weak hoar layer two to three feet below the surface,” said avalanche forecaster Erich Peitzsch, director of the Flathead Avalanche Center. “It has pretty much been the culprit weak layer for all of these reported human-triggered avalanches in the past nine days. This layer isn’t going away. It’s still going to be there causing problems for a while.”

On Dec. 28, two skiers triggered an avalanche near Goolie’s Point in Canyon Creek, the site of a fatal avalanche in 2008, and ski patrollers reported avalanche activity in Hellroaring Basin at Whitefish Mountain Resort prior to opening the area to the public.

On Dec. 27, four snowmobilers survived after being buried by an avalanche in the Mission Mountains northwest of Seeley Lake, and on Dec. 25 a skier triggered an avalanche in the southern Lewis Range in Glacier National Park. The skier triggered the avalanche about four turns into the slope, and was able to ski out of its path. According to the Flathead Avalanche Center, the slide traveled about 1,000 feet.

“Just in the last eight days there have been a lot of near misses, some of which haven’t been reported,” said Steve Burglund, a Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol board member. “It’s a stack of cards that we are skiing on in the backcountry right now, and with the new snow and wind we’re be looking at some long-term issues that will be with us a long time this winter.”

To promote avalanche awareness, safety and preparedness in the backcountry, the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol has installed avalanche beacon checkpoints to promote safe backcountry travel in the valley.

Recently, patrol members installed three “beacon checkers” at popular backcountry access points on Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Big Mountain. The beacon checkers were purchased with a donation from the Northern Rockies Avalanche Safety Workshop.

The beacon check stations, which run on battery and solar power, automatically check to see if a skier’s avalanche transceiver is on and working. The stations glow green if a person’s avalanche transceiver is working, and red if it isn’t.

The person wearing a transceiver must stop within range of the device. A green light indicates the avalanche transceiver is on and working, while a red light means it is not.

They are designed to inform all members of a group that their beacons are working, and to warn backcountry users that transceivers are a necessary safety device in avalanche terrain, Burglund said.

One station is located at Flower Point, which skiers and snowboarders use to access the popular Canyon Creek drainage. Other beacon check stations are located at the snowmobile parking area at the summit of Whitefish Mountain Resort and on Taylor Creek Road, an access point for Hellroaring Peak, which is also the site of recent avalanche activity.

The fourth beacon check station is located in Essex at the Marion Lake/Essex Creek trailhead, a popular location with backcountry skiers in the Middle Fork drainage.

The Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol was also awarded the 2014 Doris Schumm Community Spirit Award grant from the Whitefish Community Foundation, and used the funds to establish a rescue cache on Flower Point at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

The rescue cache will facilitate more efficient responses to backcountry emergencies outside of ski area boundaries, and is equipped with shovels, probes, beacons, first aid supplies and other gear that could be critical when responding to an avalanche emergency. The need for a rescue cache was prompted by the opening of the new Flower Point chairlift, which provides skiers and riders easier access to backcountry ski areas like Canyon Creek.

Signs also remind backcountry users to carry a shovel and probe and provide tips on avalanche safety, including contact information for avalanche updates from the Flathead Avalanche Center. Updates and advisories are also available online at www.flatheadavalanche.org.

The cost to purchase and install the beacon checkers is $750 per unit. The Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol has an agreement with Whitefish Mountain Resort and Flathead National Forest to monitor and maintain the units.

The Northern Rockies Avalanche Safety Workshop has donated $3,500 to fund the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol’s avalanche education and safety efforts, and Burglund said the group deserves a “nod of gratitude.”

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