Winter wouldn’t be winter in the Rocky Mountains without wind slabs and weak layers, terrain traps and temperature gradients, and skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers navigating a labyrinth of backcountry hazards.
But even in a region that sees a high volume of backcountry winter travel, stoke and safety can coexist with the right amount of avalanche awareness, preparation and education.
Due in large part to the growing momentum of the Flathead Avalanche Center — and the energy and expertise harnessed by a dedicated group of avalanche aficionados to build the resource into a national model — skiers, snowmobilers and backcountry revelers have more opportunities than ever to hone their skills and experience the backcountry of Northwest Montana safely.
Beginning Dec. 1, the community’s premier avalanche center will begin publishing daily snow advisories that capture the rhythm of snow behavior and activity for winter backcountry users.
Currently, the Flathead Avalanche Center is providing intermittent, early-season reports available online at flatheadavalanche.org, as well as on the organization’s Facebook page, Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center.
The additional information that daily advisories provide can’t replace snow safety and backcountry knowledge, said Zach Guy, the center’s new director.
“My goal is to continue to increase our educational components,” said Guy, who earlier this year replaced Erich Peitzsch as director. “Last year we had a lot of growth and probably reached an additional 500 people. We really want to keep that momentum going. We do a lot of visits to school districts around the Flathead Valley, as well as awareness classes and more advanced classes with field components.”
Much of the center’s momentum owes thanks to the work of Peitzsch, who recently handed the reins over to Guy in order to pursue his Ph.D. in snow science at Montana State University.
During his tenure at the avalanche center, Peitzsch, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist and avalanche forecaster in Glacier National Park, built the center into an even more valuable educational tool and resource, with a robust staff.
Todd Hannan is entering his fifth year as an avalanche specialist with FAC, and helps lead the daily forecasting efforts along with avalanche specialists Mark Dundas, Peitzsch and Seth Carbonari. Guy Zoellner will provide support to the FAC as an observer, along with Jenny Cloutier as the education coordinator for the Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center (FOFAC).
FOFAC helps support FAC financially as well as by promoting avalanche education programs in Northwest Montana and beyond.
Guy said the center also partners with the Whitefish-based Patrol Fund, which provides grants and scholarships to increase the region’s suite of backcountry winter recreation educational offerings.
“What we offer here is a resource that’s equal to or greater to what you would find anywhere else in the country,” said Guy, who previously worked as the director of the Crested Butte Avalanche Center in Crested Butte, Colorado. “The Patrol Fund helps bring the cost of classes down to half of what you would pay elsewhere. You would be hard pressed to find a level-one avalanche course at this price tag anywhere in the country.”
The FAC is still adding classes to its schedule, but will offer a handful of one-hour Avalanche Awareness and Motorized Avalanche Awareness Clinics throughout the season, as well as a companion rescue class and the popular Ladies Avalanche Awareness presentation.
The first two-day Intro to Avalanches course, which offers both classroom and field sessions, begins Dec. 14. The center will also offer a topic series, providing thorough discussion on specific topics like wet snow, decision-making and mountain weather.
The forecasters have already put out some preseason snowpack information, and Guy expects to begin issuing regular advisories Dec. 1, though the schedule is dependent on snowfall.
Advisories from the Flathead Avalanche Center, which is based in Hungry Horse, cover approximately 2,050 square miles, including the Flathead, Swan and Whitefish Ranges, as well as portions of Glacier National Park.
For the FAC’s full educational listings or to check advisories, visit flatheadavalanche.org.
Avalanche Awareness Events
Join the Flathead Avalanche Center for a series of free, one-hour Avalanche Awareness presentations.
The events are a great way to tune up and refresh your avalanche knowledge, and serve as a good introduction to avalanche safety. The classes include general information about avalanche hazards, how to avoid them and proper equipment for traveling in avalanche terrain.
Here are a few upcoming events:
Nov. 30: Rocky Mountain Outfitter, 6:30 p.m.
Dec. 5: Sportsman and Ski Haus, Whitefish, 6:30 p.m.
Dec. 13: Penco Power Products, Kalispell (motorized avalanche awareness), 6:30 p.m.
Jan. 4: The Stonefly Lounge, Coram, 7 p.m.
The following Introduction to Avalanches courses aim to help students recognize and understand obvious avalanche hazard through both classroom and field sessions. The cost is $45.
Dec. 14: Flathead Valley Community College, 6-9 p.m.; field course on Dec. 16 at Whitefish Mountain Resort, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Jan. 11: Ladies Introduction to Avalanches Class, Flathead Valley Community College, 6-9 p.m.; and field session on Jan. 13 at Whitefish Mountain Resort, 9 a.m.-4p.m.
For a full list of upcoming events and workshops, visit www.flatheadavalanche.org.