Avalanche Season is Upon Us

All those slabs of unstable snow mean you can’t be too careful about avalanche danger this time of year

By Rob Breeding

I’m not a winter sports guy. In January, when friends are on the slopes taking advantage of the best powder of the season, I keep pushing rope in the uplands. Bird hunting season may remain open in parts of the Northern Rockies in January, but just because you can doesn’t mean it’s terribly productive.

It’s too cold, the dog can’t make scent, and by winter the hunkered down birds have seen enough hunters that the suicidal among them have already been culled.

Those of you who are smart enough to recognize “winter” is best suited for “winter” sports are out having fun. But this fun comes with its own set of cautions, not the least of which is avalanche danger.

You’ve probably seen the images from Missoula that are making the rounds. On Mount Jumbo last week, a herd of elk appeared to have caused a minor avalanche and the Missoula County Sheriff’s office has closed Jumbo to human activity.

The photos brought reminders of the Mount Jumbo avalanche on Feb. 28, 2014 that destroyed a home and buried three people, one of whom later died from her injuries.

And in late February of this year, a skier died in an avalanche in the Bridger Range north of Bozeman.

Skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers can all have the same impact as that Jumbo herd of elk when they cut across an unstable slab of snow. This time of year, slabs form when new snow falls on older, crusted surfaces. The wind can also blow drifts of snow, creating unstable slabs, to the same, deadly effect. The disturbance slices off the upper layer of snow and the avalanche buries everything downhill.

A disturbance isn’t always required, however. Sometimes gravity is all it takes.

All those slabs of unstable snow mean you can’t be too careful about avalanche danger this time of year. If you’re more highly motivated than me, and a lover of the white stuff, caution is key. The National Ski Patrol advises that before you go, take an avalanche safety course, do additional research on avalanches, learn to recognize avalanche terrain, practice safety and rescue procedures, do your homework about conditions, and anticipate the “Human Factor.”

The human factor is a nice way of saying that no matter how many times you warn people in your group otherwise, someone may still cut a line in the snow upslope from another. The Ski Patrol’s website reminds us people may exhibit “undesirable behavior” in stressful situations. In other words, they may panic and screw up big time. So a cross country ski trip at the height of avalanche season isn’t the best time to break in a new partner for outdoor adventures.

A better first test may instead be watching them at their kid’s soccer match. If they tend to overreact to bad calls or other on-field mishaps, that might be an indication they won’t respond well in a disaster.

The Patrol also advises backcountry skiers to always carry avalanche equipment, including transceivers, probes and shovels, as well as camping gear, food and water, as well as the extra clothing you should never be without in the backcountry. Everyone in your party needs to be fully equipped.

But maybe the best bit of advice on the Ski Patrol website isn’t about gear or training, but instead focuses on attitude. The Patrol advises to never hesitate to voice concerns or fears. The backcountry is no place for braggadocio. Pair yourself with adventurers equally cautious about safety.

Then there’s always my favorite backcountry avalanche safety tip: resist the impulse to be outside altogether. Instead, put a pot of chili on simmer, open a bottle of season-suitable ale and find a proper sporting event to watch on television. In my book, winter is for dreaming of time spent outdoors in the summer and fall.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.

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