COOKE CITY — Even if you’re an expert, you can never be too safe in Montana’s backcountry. It’s something two avalanche researchers learned firsthand last week after they triggered a slide near Cooke City.
It was last Friday when two avalanche researchers from the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center had a close call with the very same phenomena they were studying on Fisher Mountain.
“It’s incredibly terrifying,” said the director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, Doug Chabot, on Wednesday.
The two researchers had snowmobiled to an area on the mountain to dig some snow pits.
“One of them rode and then the second person came, and when the second person was coming, he triggered the avalanche from below,” said Chabot.
The second rider wasn’t on the slope but below it.
“And he was able to propagate this fracture up the hill, which then caught him. Luckily the other guy, the first guy, he was safe,” Chabot said.
The first rider called for help on the radio and then rushed down the mountain to assist his colleague.
“And luckily he wasn’t buried. He had snow up to his thighs, but it was a really close call because it was a big avalanche,” said Chabot.
They were able to dig out the rider and his snowmobile, and thankfully no one was hurt but it’s a reminder that there are no rules when it comes to Mother Nature.
“December and January can be quite bad for avalanches in Montana. And the reason for that is, is we’re forming many weak layers in the snowpack right now,” Chabot said.
Chabot said the snowpack is relatively thin, usually only two to three feet thick in most places. And thin snowpack can change really fast. At some point, the weak layer may break and when it breaks, that’s what triggers avalanches.
“But the ones that kill people in the United States are overwhelmingly, either the victim or someone in their party triggered the avalanche,” said Chabot.
He said it’s imperative to educate yourself on avalanche danger when backcountry skiing or exploring, and even when you do know what you’re doing, come prepared.
“If you have nothing with you, you’re definitely a sitting duck,” Chabot said.
The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center offers a variety of avalanche education courses, with some even based out in the field. They also issue avalanche forecasts each morning on their website and Facebook page.
You can check those out at Home | Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (mtavalanche.com) and Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center | Facebook.