Snowmobilers for Safety

The Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center has expanded courses for snowmobilers and motorized users in response to increasing backcountry demand

By Maggie Dresser
Flathead Avalanche Center Forecaster Cam Johnson leads a multiple burial rescue scenario debrief on Dec. 19, 2021. Courtesy photo

At the Canyon Creek trailhead north of Columbia Falls, the 150-space parking lot is at capacity almost every winter weekend with rigs and snowmobiles spilling out to the highway, where the sweet sound of “braps” can be heard from miles away, combining with the scent of burning engine oil.

Snowmobile dealerships are running out of sleds to sell as demand rises and membership at the Flathead Snowmobile Association (FSA) has doubled in the last few years.

With more interest in snowmobiling and advanced equipment bringing riders further into the backcountry, the risk for avalanche exposure has also heightened in recent years, prompting the Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center (FOFAC) to offer additional motorized avalanche classes for those drawn to the “brap” of a snowmobile engine and the places it can transport them.

New courses this year include a Motorized Avalanche Level 2, a Ladies Motorized Avalanche Level 1 and a motorized partner rescue class.

“The classes are filling up faster,” said Emily Struss, the Director of Development at FOFAC. “We’re seeing a lot more users and new (FSA) members.”

FOFAC partnered with Six Points Avalanche Education out of Bozeman to provide motorized specific curriculum and instructors for the Level 2 course who will be joined by Flathead Avalanche Center (FAC) forecasters.

As the first Motorized Level 2 course in the Flathead Valley, it will be a combination of online classes with three full field days, taking riders into advanced terrain likely in Canyon Creek and Red Meadow.

Differing from nonmotorized courses, which are designed for skiers and snowboarders, the motorized education takes a different approach to terrain access and managing a heavy, fast-moving snowmobile.

“There’s definitely more time spent on terrain management as we’re traveling,” FOFAC Education Director Meg Killen said. “It’s a little different – there’s less instruction time because there’s more riding time. In nonmotorized classes we’re able to talk while we’re skinning. It balances out with hands-on education.”

Last year, Friends of the Flathead Snowmobile Association (FFSA) was able to subsidize the cost for 12 riders to take a Level 1 course through Flathead Electric Cooperative’s Roundup for Safety grant and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ snowmobile program, in addition to the club’s other fundraising. Total fundraising provided 60 education scholarships.

While avalanche education has been part of backcountry skiing and snowboarding culture for a while, Struss says the motorized community has recently started following suit, leading to increasing awareness in recent years.

“The demand is absolutely increasing, which is great to see,” Killen said. “That’s why we decided to focus on filling that niche, because nobody else was.”

FFSA President Mark Smolen says avalanche education has ramped up since he joined the club six years ago and more members are taking the courses.

“I took my Level 1 two years ago and it was eye-opening,” Smolen said. “When I first moved here, you just went out and rode and nobody really talked about (avalanches) much. I remember at a couple of meetings (our safety officer) would tell us we should be Level 1 certified, and he was the lone voice in the wilderness at the time.”

Smolen pushed for more avalanche education after the demand spiked in the last few years, and he said the January class filled within minutes after registration opened.

“More and more people started taking the course and your friends come back and say the course was amazing,” Smolen said. “I think the word spread. It sounds daunting but at the end of the day it’s actually a fun course to take. You’re covering a lot of material but you’re out learning, hearing and seeing.”

To register for courses, visit, www.fvcc.edu starting Jan. 4. For more information about the Flathead Snowmobile Association or to donate, visit www.flatheadsnowmobiler.com.