The avalanche danger in the Whitefish Range was considerable over 5,000 feet. A wet storm system had rolled through three days before, on Wednesday, Jan. 13, and there had since been reports of both natural and skier-triggered avalanches across the valley. Flathead Avalanche Center forecaster Todd Hannan issued an advisory at 7 a.m. that morning, which warned of dangerous wind slabs and persistent weak layers in the snowpack. After reviewing the conditions, 22 women marched outside onto the snow with their avalanche beacons, probes, and shovels.
But they weren’t heading into the backcountry for a ski tour. Enrolled in the second-annual Ladies Introduction to Avalanches course hosted by the Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center and Flathead Valley Community College, they would learn to read the snowpack and determine where – or if –it might be safe to travel. Course lead Sue Purvis and instructor Jenny Cloutier dug snowpits on south- and north-facing aspects near the summit of Big Mountain and the students, who were skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers, gathered around.
Purvis, a certified American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education instructor, has a long career in wilderness education, guiding, and search and rescue. Cloutier, an ecology and outdoor medicine educator who has worked with the Forest Service and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, is a board member of the Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit that supports the center’s operations and coordinates snow safety education in the valley for people of all ages and experience levels.
Like geologists reading fossil records and stacks of sediment to learn the Earth’s history, Purvis and Cloutier pointed out evidence of this winter’s weather patterns in the layers of snow. A thin, hard band cut across the wall of the snowpit about a foot down – the slab of fresh powder sat atop a slick ice rime that had recently formed thanks to warm, stormy weather events.
The group whittled out individual columns of snow and tapped them from above to see how much stress would make the top layer slide off the rime. Due to general spatial variability, the columns performed slightly differently, but the top layer slipped off some like a cash register drawer, a worrisome sign that even small disturbances could cause an avalanche. As the group discussed their varying results, they concluded that the range’s storm layer was likely far from settled.
Over time, the snowpack will homogenize as the newest layer of snow compresses and bonds with the layers below it. Storm slabs usually settle quickly, but when they rest on unstable layers like a rime, instability can linger for months. A skier had set off a slide the day before, and in the next morning’s avalanche report, Hannan guessed that the failure had happened at the level of the slippery buried crust.
Tempted by unspoiled powder or emboldened by more educated friends, people often venture into the backcountry without the tools or knowledge to evaluate the dangers, and this course sought to provide its students with critical-thinking assessment skills to make informed decisions.
“I learned a ton,” said Leslie Riser, of Columbia Falls. “I have a good base knowledge. There’s going to be a thought process now.”
The course served as a jumping-off point and many women, like Jess Bruinsma, expressed a desire to seek out more education.
“It was the perfect amount of knowledge to make me want to dig deeper,” she said.
“I definitely want to take an avy 1,” agreed Sarah Staschavage, referring to the traditional in-depth beginner’s avalanche education course.
There are many opportunities to take that class in the valley, but Flathead women may have the chance to do so next year in a ladies course, a project Purvis says she’s working on organizing. And though women can excel in any avalanche education environment, the students remarked throughout the day that there’s a special dynamic when a group of women gather to learn.
“For a lot of women, it can be intimidating in a mixed group, especially in this sport and this city, where everyone knows what they’re doing and loves to ski,” said Jess Curry, who travels through the backcountry on a snowmobile for her work with the Forest Service. “Being in a female setting makes it easier to ask questions. There’s less pressure.”
The setting also provided the opportunity for outdoorswomen to build relationships. Many of the course’s attendees said that they usually ski with men, and before the class was even over, some had already begun excitedly planning backcountry trips for the future with new friends.
“I’ll challenge anybody to make a community of like-minded women,” Purvis said. “There a lot of awesome, hardcore backcountry [women] skiers here, and we need to pull them in …This [course] is another venue to empower women.”