Avalanche Danger Runs High in Montana
Slides Kill Three—Extreme Caution Urged
By Tom Frost
It's been an active and deadly avalanche season in the Northern Rockies this winter. In Montana last month, three men lost their lives on the same day in separate incidents, and 16 more people lost their lives in other states.
The increase in avalanches is the result of a combination of two different kinds of snow layers, according to experts in the field. At the start of the season, snowfall was light. The snow that fell left a thin layer, and after several of these light snows, weak layers accumulated one on top of the other.
“At Teton Pass we actually had rain up to ten thousand feet that put down a rain crust first,” Jamie Yount, an avalanche technician for the Wyoming Department of Transportation, told the Pioneer. “That rain crust didn't help. Then we got those weak snow layers.”
The tops of those layers become granular as frost forms and decom-poses, and these granular-topped layers play a key role in causing an avalanche.
In mid December, snow began to fall heavily in the Northern Rockies. A barrage of heavy snowstorms with few breaks deposited heavy snow layers that eventually gave way as the granular surfaces of the layers below created a ball-bearing effect—the heavy snow slabs simply slid across, creating multiple avalanches across the region in early January.
“I saw the biggest avalanches I've ever seen on Teton Pass,” said Yount. “One slide put 30 feet of snow on the highway. A few days later another avalanche left 50 feet of snow on the road. That much snow is a pretty big mess.”
Then, in mid-January, the weather warmed up drastically, further destabilizing the snowpack and making an already dangerous ava-lanche season even worse. The warm temperatures also beckoned more sportsmen into the mountains, and with more people recreating in the mountains, the likelihood of triggering an avalanche increases, according to the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. That’s exactly what happened in the third weekend of January, when three separate avalanches took the lives of three snowmobilers.
The avalanches that took lives in Montana last month all happened on the same day in different locations, according the Associated Press. In Park County, an ava-lanche high in the mountains north of Cooke City took the life of one man, a snowmobiler, when he and his machine were smothered with cascading snow. Search dogs found the man’s body under 3 feet of debris with his rescue beacon deacti-vated. Another snowmobiler, a 21-year-old Idaho man, died on Mount Jefferson in Beaverhead County’s Centennial Range while engaging in an activity called high marking, a dangerous stunt during avalanche season in which a snowmobiler rides up a mountainside as high as possible before turning around, sometimes bringing an avalanche with him. Efforts to rescue the Idaho man by the snowmobilers he was riding with failed. And in the Gravelly Range, Madison County, a 50-year old Belgrade man was killed and found in avalanche debris at the bottom of a hill. Riding in a group of 15 or so, snowmobilers realized one man was missing, but spotted a fresh avalanche in their wake. Efforts to revive the man failed, the AP reported.
“You can ride and ski on a lot of slopes, but there are some slopes waiting for a human trigger,” Doug Chabot of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, told the AP.
“We do our best to keep the traveling public safe,” said Yount, whose responsibilities at the Wyoming Department of Transportation include avalanche forecasting and control for Teton Pass and Jackson. “We have to close the highway ten or 15 times a year.”
Explosives are the weapons Yount utilizes in efforts to keep the Teton Pass avalanches in check, and are also used to help control avalanches at ski resorts. “We have a howitzer [cannon],” he said. “We have remotely detonated devices at four spots.” Dropping explosives from a helicopter is also an option.
“We had to heli-bomb the 50-foot slide,” said Yount. “With a helicop-ter, you can use really big bombs.”
Avalanche control techniques like the use of explosives can't control all avalanches, and in the backcountry, where there are no ava-lanche control teams or howitzers, it's a whole different story. Most backcountry avalanche victims are lost in avalanches of their own making, but it doesn't take risky behavior to bring the snow down. It doesn't matter what the conditions are; an avalanche can occur on any slope.
“I always tell people to carry the right equipment, get educated about avalanches, and use the avalanche forecast center,” said Yount. “It's all about making good decisions in the backcountry.”
Former ski patrolman LJ Glover agrees with Yount's suggestions regarding backcountry winter recre-ation. Glover, who lives in Pray, Montana, worked as a patrolman at Breckinridge, Colorado, in the 1970s. He said that he used to ski in some fairly dangerous, avalanche-prone terrain himself, without checking out snow conditions, until the battered bodies of avalanche victims he encountered as a ski patrolman convinced him to change his ways.
Snowmobilers and skiers would be far more careful, Glover told the Pioneer, if they understood the brutality an avalanche inflicts upon the human body. And according to Glover, blunt force trauma is as often the cause of death during an ava-lanche as suffocation.
“People should be more concerned,” he said. “Avalanche training is a good idea. A little education goes a long way, and could definitely save your life. You can't tell how safe the snow is simply by looking at it. Check snow conditions in the backcountry, and learn how to do it properly. Pay attention to avalanche reports.”
Humans, of course, have been dealing with avalanches for a long time, since they first ventured into snow-covered mountains in winter, and while this winter in the U.S. avalanches have killed 19 people (as of January), the alpine region of Europe experiences more avalanches than anywhere in the world. The first historical record of an ava-lanche came in the 3rd Century B.C., as Hannibal was crossing the Alps with his army during the Second Punic War. The first published description came from Johann Scheuchzer in the 1706 book Description of the Natural History of Switzerland. Scheuchzer described avalanches as huge snowballs, and that concept of an avalanche was accepted for more than a century, with 19th-century European paintings depicting massive snowballs plunging down alpine slopes. While his idea of an avalanche may have been off the mark, Scheuchzer had some tips for Switzerland's mountain-dwellers that were right on target:
“Practically never erect buildings at the foot of a steep mountain,” he wrote, “unless there is a hill or wood appropriately located on the slope which will divert the rolling avalanche…or force it to temporarily loose its power…” The Swiss heeded Scheuchzer's advice, protecting by law triangular patches of pine trees strategically located above villages.
In 1881, the Swiss also published the first real scientific writings on avalanches, Avalanches of the Swiss Alps, by Swiss forester Johann Coaz. Within twenty years, modern avalanche research devel-oped, as skiing and mountaineering became more and more popular in the Alps. By the 1950s, North American research on avalanches began in earnest, as winter sports took hold in the United States and Canada.
In the U.S., by the late 1880s, miners in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado were already construc-ting avalanche barriers and splitters to protect buildings. After World War II, isolated mountain towns vulnerable to avalanches began to grow, and ski resorts began to pop up in the West. This growth led to systematic avalanche research in the region, which took root at Alta, Utah. Monty Atwater, a veteran of the U.S Army’s famous 10th Mountain Division, helped establish the Alta Avalanche School in 1949, which became the present-day National Avalanche School.
Atwater's fellow 10th Mountain Division veterans Charles Bradley and John Montagne also began avalanche research at Montana State University in Bozeman. The nearby Bridger Bowl ski area served as their research model, with Montagne focusing on the overhanging cornices atop the peaks at Bridger Bowl, which can break loose and cause avalanches, and Bradley studying depth hoarfrost and snowpack structure, key factors in understan-ding avalanche dynamics. Along with help from people like Ted Lang and Bob Brown of MSU's Civil Engineering Department, MSU's ava-lanche research has been integrated into the latest snowpack evaluation models. These models help entities like the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center assess avalanche danger in the high country.
Canada began official government research on avalanches in the 1950s, in connection with highway construction over the ill-fated Rogers Pass in British Columbia. In March, 1910, the deadliest ava-lanche in Canadian history struck Rogers Pass. A crew of over 60 men had been clearing avalanche debris from the railroad tracks when a second avalanche came thundering down. Fifty eight lifeless bodies were dug out of the avalanche by rescue parties, and four more were found when the snow cleared that spring. The Canadian government then wanted the Rogers Pass section of highway to be as safe as possible, and the pass essentially served as a laboratory for Canadian researchers. The highway over Rogers Pass was completed in 1962.
Avalanche reports, advisories, and weather conditions for the region are available through the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center website, mtavalanche.com, as well as information on avalanche workshops and internet tutorials. The website also contains maps, pictures, video clips, and snow and avalanche articles. Call 406-587-6981 for current avalanche advisories.
Photographer Beau Fredlund, who captured the images accom-panying this article, skis powder in places like Norway, New Zealand and Kyrgyzstan, yet holds the Greater Yellowstone in highest regard, working as a Wilderness Ranger in Red Lodge during the summer, and currently as the eccentric innkeeper of Silver Gate.