It’s the fear of every backcountry skier: Mother Nature’s wrath unleashed in a wave of snow, destroying and burying everything in its path.
January in Western Montana has brought another warm snap, wreaking havoc on the stability of the snowpack.
There has already been one avalanche related fatality in Montana this year, while two other recreationists survived a very close call, according to the Missoula based snow monitoring website, missoulaavalanche.org, sponsored by the West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation.
Even though danger ratings are going down in the Bitterroot Mountains, there is still need for caution, Steve Karkanen said, the director of the West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation.
“We wanted to go lower than moderate danger warning, but we’re still seeing weaknesses in the snowpack,” Karkanen said.
The weaknesses in the snowpack are called facets, weak layers within the snowpack that could give out and cause an avalanche if the right amount of pressure is put on them.
Karkanen said the current troubling layers are from a type of frost called hoar frost. He went on to say hoar frost is formed on cold dry days, making it difficult for any new snow to bind with old snow, so the frost then sits on top. With the inability to bind, the new snow sitting on the frost becomes a weak layer with the potential to slide.
The only way the weak layer can become safe to ski on is through time, Karkanen said.
Due to the instabilities in the snowpack and the popularity of backcountry recreation, members of the West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation and the University of Montana backcountry ski club are holding several avalanche education events to help prepare recreationists for the inherent risks the backcountry brings.
Sign-up times for classes can be found on the West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation website, missoulaavalanche.org. The classes are offered through February.
The classes will focus on snow safety, finding safe routes and how to monitor snowpack. The classes also offer field trips where students will dig snow pits, test snow slabs and practice rescuing avalanche victims.
The students are required to have their own avalanche beacon, probe and shovel, as the class will go over properly locating buried victims, pinpointing their position and digging them out.
West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation member, Dudley Improta, has already put on a free avalanche lecture over the past two days in the North Underground Lecture Hall. While preparing terrifying videos of avalanches in action, Improta spoke of the importance of the lectures and classes.
“We do recommend that if people are going to recreate on steep slopes in the backcountry, they should take a class with a field component,” Improta said. “The classes are aimed at people that are interested in skiing slopes 35 degrees or steeper in the backcountry.”
He also stressed the importance of being a proficient skier before attending the field component of the classes.
“You’ve got to be confident in your skiing ability,” he said. “If you’re going to ski terrain that is capable of avalanching, then you want to be able to say 'I want to take this line by the trees and be able to do that … in case that’s the only safe way down.'”
Improta said 35 degrees is the optimal range for avalanches to occur, and the classes aren’t just for skiers, but for people snowshoeing and snowmobiling as well.
“We are trying to get sledders involved,” he said. “The sledders are getting into some serious terrain.”
Currently, the only avalanche related accidents reported in Montana involved snowmobilers, with one resulting in a death near Cooke City.
For broke college students who can’t afford safety classes, the UM backcountry club is offering a free avalanche awareness day at Lolo Pass on Feb. 7.
President of the club, Black Votilla, said the event is a great opportunity for the club to promote safety and for students to learn about the backcountry for free.
Club member Elliot Natz said the event is not only an opportunity to learn, but also to meet like-minded people.
“It’s great to talk to some people, gain some knowledge and even develop a community,” he said.
The group will meet at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 7, and is open to skiers of all levels. The class will focus on traveling in avalanche terrain, digging snow pits and analyzing the snow pack.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity,” Natz said, “especially for people who don’t have the opportunity to pay for a course.”