<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

Linkedin Pinterest

Avalanche forecasters: Western snowpack is ‘a house of cards’

Safety specialists try to curb deaths from unstable slabs as number of backcountry users soars

By
Published:
3 Photos
Doug Chabot, with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, inspects the site of a recent avalanche on Henderson Mountain, Jan. 29, 2024, near Cooke City, Mont. The area has seen numerous fatal avalanches in recent decades but officials say safety efforts are helping keep the rate of accidents from spiking as more people use backcountry areas.
Doug Chabot, with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, inspects the site of a recent avalanche on Henderson Mountain, Jan. 29, 2024, near Cooke City, Mont. The area has seen numerous fatal avalanches in recent decades but officials say safety efforts are helping keep the rate of accidents from spiking as more people use backcountry areas. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown) (Matthew Brown/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

COOKE CITY, Mont. — As Wesley Mlaskoch motored his snowmobile across a mountain in the Montana backcountry, the slope above him collapsed into a thick slab and began rushing down the hillside.

He had triggered an avalanche. Within seconds, the fury of accelerating snow flipped the snowmobile on top of him, threatening to bury Mlaskoch in the slide’s debris.

The Willow River, Minn., man survived the recent accident near Yellowstone National Park after pulling a cord on his backpack to trigger an inflatable airbag specially designed for avalanches. It floated him higher in the moving white torrent so his head stayed above the surface as he came to a stop. His brother and several friends scrambled up the slope and used shovels to dig him out, according to Mlaskoch and the others.

He was shaken up but not hurt, and by the next morning, details of his misadventure were posted online as yet another cautionary tale by the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, one of many organizations working around the U.S. to forecast avalanche conditions and try to prevent accidents that kill about 30 people a year on average. Four people have died so far this winter, including one in a rare slide within the boundaries of a Lake Tahoe ski resort and skiers in backcountry areas of Idaho, Colorado and Wyoming.

“I remember when I first started coming here, I was cocky, like, ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’” Mlaskoch said, sitting on his snowmobile back in Cooke City, Mont. “Then two hours into our first ride on our first day, it went south.”

Avalanche safety specialists say their job has become more difficult in recent years as climate change brings extreme weather, and as surging numbers of skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers visit backcountry areas since the COVID-19 pandemic.

More people means more chances to trigger fatal avalanches, despite technological advances in safety equipment, including the airbag that saved Mlaskoch. Avalanches in the Cooke City area have killed 22 snowmobilers and two skiers since 1998, making it one of the deadliest locations for snowslides in the U.S.

Experts say the potential for hazardous avalanches has set in for the winter for many mountain ranges. Scant snowfall across much of the U.S. West early in the season created an unstable layer at the bottom of the snowpack. That dangerous condition is likely to persist for months, said Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.

“That weak layer, when we get snowfall on top of it, it’s a house of cards,” he said.

Chabot is among avalanche specialists across the country bringing increased attention to the dangers of avalanches and teaching people how to stay safe. They say their work has helped keep deaths from spiking despite more skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers pushing the limits on remote mountainsides.

Breathtakingly steep terrain makes the Cooke City area particularly susceptible to avalanches. There’s no ski patrol, and the best hope for rescue is your own partner or group.

“If you’re dug up in 10 minutes, you have an 80 percent chance of surviving,” Chabot said. “It’s not a smooth ride as you come down. You can hit rocks, you can hit trees, you can be traumatized, and even in the best case you’re still looking at 20 percent of the people don’t make it.”

Southwest Montana’s Beartooth Mountains are inherently dangerous, and there’s no stopping people from putting their life on the line. Chabot’s goal is to make sure they at least know what they’re getting into. For 29 years, he’s observed the region’s weather and visited backcountry sites to survey the snow conditions, gauge the danger and post avalanche forecasts.

Just a few miles from where Mlaskoch nearly died and on the same day, Chabot snowmobiled through the forest then clipped into skis to climb a steep slope. He steered wide of a funnel-shaped chute — hazardous terrain, its surface sliced up from recent snowmobile traffic — and worked his way higher. Reaching a clearing, he stopped, took out a lightweight shovel and started to dig.

As snow gets deeper, it can get denser and stronger. But as it goes through temperature changes — which are more likely and more dramatic when the snow is not deep, a variable that’s shifting with climate change-induced droughts — it sometimes transforms into sugar-like crystals. Those crystals are quick to collapse when the weight above them gets too heavy, such as after a large snowfall or when the wind piles snow on one side of a mountain.

Ten minutes into his digging, Chabot struck ground 5 feet down. He tossed icy grains from the hole. “You see I’m just shoveling sugar here,” he said.

mobile phone icon
Take the news everywhere you go.
Download The Columbian app:
Download The Columbian app for Android on Google PlayDownload The Columbian app for iOS on the Apple App Store
Loading...