Avalanche Forecasters Save Lives

02/07/2024
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    Avalanche specialist Doug Chabot inspects the site of a recent avalanche on Henderson Mountain, on January 29, 2024, near Cooke City, Montana. (AP/Matthew Brown)
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    Doug Chabot measures the stability of the snow near Lulu Pass in the Beartooth Mountains on January 29, 2024, near Cooke City, Montana. (AP/Matthew Brown)
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    Doug Chabot climbs to the site of a recent avalanche on January 29, 2024, near Cooke City, Montana. (AP/Matthew Brown)
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    Wesley Mlaskoch’s snowmobile flipped in an avalanche on January 29, 2024, near Cooke City, Montana. (Wesley Mlaskoch via AP)
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    Wesley Mlaskoch describes deploying an airbag after he was caught in the avalanche. (AP/Matthew Brown)
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Wesley Mlaskoch motored his snowmobile across a mountain in the Montana backcountry near Cooke City. The slope above him collapsed. A thick slab of snow began rushing down the hillside. He had triggered an avalanche.

Experts say the potential for hazardous avalanches has set in for the winter in many U.S. mountain ranges.

Scant snowfall across much of the western United States early in the season created an unstable layer at the bottom of the snowpack. That dangerous condition is likely to persist for months, says Doug Chabot. He is director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.

For 29 years, Chabot has observed the region’s weather. He visits backcountry sites to survey snow conditions, gauge danger, and post avalanche forecasts.

Avalanche specialists like Chabot bring attention to the dangers of avalanches and teach people how to stay safe.

Those safety specialists say their jobs have become more difficult in recent years. Extreme weather and surging numbers of skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers contribute to the problem. More people means more chances to trigger fatal avalanches, despite technological advances in safety equipment.

Mlaskoch says that within seconds, snow flipped his snowmobile on top of him and threatened to bury him. He survived after pulling a cord on his backpack to trigger an inflatable airbag designed for avalanches. It floated him higher in the moving white torrent. His head stayed above the surface as the snow came to a stop. His brother and several friends scrambled up the slope and used shovels to dig him out. He was shaken but not hurt.

By the next morning, the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center was using Mlaskoch’s story as another warning of the dangers. Four people have died in avalanches so far this winter, including one in a rare slide at a Lake Tahoe ski resort and skiers in backcountry areas of Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming.

Mlaskoch says he used to think a slide wouldn’t happen to him. “Then two hours into our first ride on our first day, it went south,” he says.

As snow gets deeper, it can get denser and stronger. But as it goes through temperature changes, it sometimes transforms into sugar-like crystals. Those crystals are quick to collapse when the weight above them gets too heavy. That can happen after a large snowfall or when wind piles snow on one side of a mountain.

Avalanches in the Cook City area have killed 22 snowmobilers and two skiers since 1998. That makes it one of the deadliest locations for snowslides in the United States. With so many deaths in their small community, Cooke City’s residents “take them personally,” says Kay Whittle. She runs the Antlers Lodge inn and restaurant with her husband, Bill. Both are longtime members of a local search-and-rescue team. They help find and dig out avalanche victims.

Whittle and other business owners hold weekly public safety avalanche briefings. On Saturdays at a warming hut for snowmobilers, educators give basic rescue lessons, such as instruction on using avalanche beacons. Those transmitters help rescuers find victims.

“I’m sure these guys get tired of hearing . . . us preach to them about safety,” says Shannon Abelseth, a snowmobile outfitter in Cooke City. “But it’s gotta be done.”

The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it. — Proverbs 22:3