Flathead Avalanche Center Expands Reach, Reports Fewer Near-Misses and Accidents

Reflecting on the 2021-2022 backcountry season, FAC report highlights community connections and outreach

By Tristan Scott
Skiers navigate the trees in the Canyon Creek backcountry ski area in Whitefish on Feb. 18, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When a community avalanche center’s annual retrospective report spans nine months and dedicates several hundred words to a sub-season categorized as “third winter,” it’s testament to the program’s commitment to provide high-level forecasts and education no matter what the season delivers — and no matter how long it lingers.

And when that same avalanche center reports a downturn in accidents and near-misses and an uptick in daily forecasts, observations, education, digital outreach, products, staffing and support, it’s clear that things are trending in the right direction.

Such is the case with Flathead Avalanche Center (FAC), which recently published its 2021-2022 annual report reflecting on its eighth season issuing daily forecasts as one of just 10 Type 1 Avalanche Centers in the U.S., a feat that wouldn’t be possible without its nonprofit partner, Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center (FOFAC), and its relationship with the Flathead National Forest, Glacier National Park and Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Issuing its first conditions report on Nov. 10, 2021, about a month later than the average for the previous seven seasons, and its final conditions update on May 27, when a prolonged bout of cool and stormy weather extended the backcountry skiing opportunities well into northwest Montana’s shoulder season, the FAC and its four full-time staff were ready to stand down when a sustained period of snow melt began the last week in May and extended for the first 10 days of June.

“It seemed like summer had finally arrived,” according to FAC’s annual report. “Then, on June 13 … an unusual late-season atmospheric river slammed into the region, dumping prodigious amounts of rain and snow in the mountains. SNOTELs in the Swan and Whitefish ranges recorded 8 to 10 inches of precipitation and 2 to 4 feet of snow in less than 72 hours, with snow levels dropping to 4,500 feet. All told, the storms from early May into mid-June produced 15 to 28 inches of precipitation in the region, and left snowpacks at 180% to 340% of median on June 18. The late-season storms marked a fitting end to a season marked by atypical weather, sharp spikes in the avalanche danger, few persistent avalanche hazards, and, in contrast to the 2020-21 season, no avalanche accidents that left riders seriously hurt or worse.”

The contrast to last season is significant in that the 2020-21 season registered a steep spike in “near-misses,” or unintentionally triggered slides where no one was caught; “incidents,” which is anytime a rider encounters moving avalanche debris; and “accidents,” where a person is partially or fully buried, injured or killed. Last season’s unprecedented volume of near-misses and accidents in the Swan, Whitefish and Flathead mountain ranges included a fatality, with 13 of the 18 near-misses occurring during a period in February characterized by a “remarkably reactive” snowpack that contributed to a rate of one event every other day.

“That spike in accidents in February is not something we see regularly at all,” FAC Director Blase Reardon said at the time. “Every other day is the kind of rate of incidents that you’d see in the Wasatches or more urban areas. It’s not typical for here and it’s an unusual confluence of conditions.”

Despite this year’s extended forecast season and late-season snowpack totals, Reardon characterized the 2021-22 season as a mix of relief and a sign of FAC’s continued trajectory of success.

“After the dramatic winter of 2020-21, it was a relief to see a season with only short-lived weak layers, straightforward access and riding conditions, and a reduction in near-misses and accidents. The FAC and FOFAC staff are, however, driven to provide high-level forecasts and education. So the season felt like a step-up rather than a coast.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.