Whitefish Avalanche Safety Workshop to Aid Winter Enthusiasts

Panel of experts to discuss snow science at annual event that encourages safe backcountry travel

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

For Northwest Montana’s hearty contingent of hibernal habitues with a stake in snow science and safety and a stoke for slashing backcountry powder lines, the Flathead Avalanche Center (FAC) and its growing roster of local programs and online tools has become a critical resource.

Not only is the community avalanche center entering its ninth season issuing daily forecasts as one of just 10 Type 1 avalanche centers in the U.S., but it does so on the heels of a 2021-22 winter that saw a downturn in accidents and near-misses in the region and an uptick in daily forecasts, observations, education, digital outreach, products, staffing, and support.

If that’s not enough of an indication that things are trending in the right direction for FAC, then certainly the premiere of its 12th annual Northern Rockies Snow and Avalanche Workshop on Nov. 12 at Whitefish’s O’Shaughnessy Cultural Arts Center will sway even the hardened skeptics among us.

The one-day workshop targets backcountry professionals and recreational enthusiasts alike and will whet the appetites of novice skiers and riders as well as backcountry aficionados. The event features a slate of six speakers with backgrounds in avalanche forecasting, theory, backcountry mountain guiding, information processing, emergency decision-making and other current backcountry information. Tickets typically sell out and are available online at flatheadavalanche.org/nrsaw.

In addition to the roster of expert speakers, the workshop will include a raffle, sponsored booths and vendors of avalanche safety gear and winter equipment.

Highlights of the workshop include a presentation from Matt Hansen, a lifelong skier who has spent two decades producing commentary about avalanches and backcountry safety, both as the communications director for Teton County Search and Rescue and, before that, as the editor of Powder Magazine for 16 years. 

Local attendees will also be familiar with presenter Joel Shehan, a Whitefish endurance athlete and physical therapist who will kick off NRSAW with a body-focused session. With a Masters of Science in Physical Therapy and Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Montana, Shehan has worked in multiple settings, including outpatient orthopedic, skilled nursing, home health and acute hospital care. Shehan works with all types of conditions and his ultimate goal is to encourage and empower his patients to overcome their pain or injury, and to achieve overall health and wellness.

Jake Hutchinson is the technical director for the American Avalanche Institute and a membership trustee for the American Avalanche Association. He has a passion for training working dogs in many disciplines, including avalanche rescue, and will deliver a presentation titled, “When Things Go Wrong — How a little critical thought, a few shortcuts and better practice will make you a more effective and more efficient companion rescuer.”

To close out the workshop, a panel discussion among a who’s-who of hometown heroes will commence, featuring Adam Clark, the lead avalanche forecaster for the BNSF Railway Avalanche Program; Lloyd Morsett, a 25-year professional ski patroller currently working as the Snow Safety Coordinator and Lead Avalanche Rescue Dog Handler for Whitefish Mountain Resort; Blase Reardon, director of FAC and an avalanche forecaster with 25 years of professional experience in Montana, Idaho and Colorado; Erich Peitzsch, a research physical scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in West Glacier, where he studies snow and avalanche-climate relationships, wet snow avalanches and supervises the Going-to-the-Sun Road Avalanche Program in Glacier National Park; and Whitefish Mountain Resort Ski Patrol Director Keagan Zoellner, who will moderate the discussion.

Neither the workshop nor the FAC’s growth would 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.

The purpose of the Flathead Avalanche Center is to prevent the loss of human life, limb, and property by human and naturally occurring avalanches through information and education to the community, and the workshop is designed to complement the center’s year-round efforts.

The Flathead Avalanche Center operates as a Type 1 Avalanche Center with four full-time forecast staff and a professional observer program. Currently, its resources allow for daily avalanche forecasts for three geographic regions encompassing 1 million acres: the Swan Range, the Whitefish Range and the Flathead Range and Glacier National Park.

In addition to sharing avalanche accident and fatality data, speakers will present new research and discuss how community avalanche programs can flourish in the avalanche and backcountry recreation industries.

“Regional avalanche workshops like NRSAW are the best bang for your buck in avalanche education,” Morsett, one of the panel speakers and an event coordinator, said.  “Come network, mingle with your backcountry peers and get excited for this coming winter.”

For more information on the Flathead Avalanche Center, or to purchase tickets to the workshop, visit flatheadavalanche.org.

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