Experts: Knowledge key to snow safety

By TRUDI FISHER/Montana State News

Bozemanites are no strangers to avalanches and the trail of tragedy they can leave behind them, but an awareness of the inherent danger of mountain snow sports can save lives. Though this season has, thus far, left Bozeman and the Bridger Mountain Range wanting for snow, experts say this is no reason to ignore precautionary measures when playing outside.

The current conditions create ample reason for awareness beyond simply owning a beacon, shovel and probe. Because of the settled and compact base of snow, any large amount of snow fall will create a very dangerous potential avalanche area.

The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (GNFAC) is responsible for avalanche safety education in the Gallatin Valley. Doug Chabot, Mark Staples and Eric Knoff of the GNFAC and Karl Birkeland of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center, both in Bozeman, noted a nonchalant and largely uneducated mindset toward avalanches after the 2010 Saddle Peak Avalanche.

That avalanche claimed no lives but was a high-risk slide area. The Bridger Bowl ski area had recently opened the Schlashman’s lift, which gives skiers closer access to risky out-of-bounds areas near the ridge.

The 2011 slide didn’t take any lives, however, traffic was heavy that day because the Schlashman’s lift had been closed during previous days due to dangerous snow conditions. Several people had skied down the hill already and an estimated 20 to 30 people were on the ridge when the van-sized slab broke off due to a snowboarder stepping too close to the edge.

This event was witnessed by many people on the lift and the ridge and was heavily researched afterward which gave the GNFAC a good idea of the mentality of people willing to risk their lives even when signs and information posted strongly suggested they stay out of the area.

Many of the people riding that day were veteran skiers and snowboarders, but were still willing to justify their risky behavior.

People tend to buy into several misconceptions about snow conditions, particularly after the 2011 Saddle Peak Avalanche:

1.)    Tracks on a slope will create stability–more is better.

2.)    The stress of a skier’s weight is not enough to cause this large of an avalanche, the cornice cracking was the culprit.

3.)    The ski area should have left the lift open during the poor conditions in the days before the avalanche to ensure the area would still be used, making it safer.

4.)    Self justification: It was safe when I skied the day before, or, because I know the area, I would know the snowpack and its potential danger

5.)    Herding instinct: Others skied without problems so it must be safe.

Educators at the GNFAC realize that it is impossible to reach everyone in the community to teach proper precautions with avalanches and snow but they continue to provide courses for skiers, snowboarders, Nordic skiers, snow-shoers, hikers, and snowmobilers.

More information and daily avalanche advisories, posted, by 8 a.m. daily are available on their website:

Edited by Susan Andrus.

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