Snowmobilers die in avalanches every winter, killed by trauma or suffocation, an extremely unpleasant way to breathe your last breath. In the last 10 years 93 snowmobilers in western America have been killed in avalanches. This is no surprise. We love to ride steep, open, mountainous slopes in avalanche terrain. If you play in the lion’s den you may get eaten, but as riders we don’t have to go into the den when the lion is hungry.
The day dawns cold and clear with a foot of fresh snow and the promise of incredible powder riding. At the trailhead, the surrounding landscape sparkles like a field of diamonds and the anticipation of a magical day in the mountains builds.
Sled covers are hastily removed and the machines are fired up - the smell of exhaust fills the air. Feeling confident about preparations, members of the group do a quick gear check and then hop on their machines, pinning their throttles towards the backcountry and a day of powder riding.
Blue ice clings to canyon walls, creating a colorful contrast to the steep rock faces of Hyalite Canyon. Climbers inch their way up the frozen surface with axes and crampons, many having traveled from around the world to experience this world class venue.
We just wrapped up our 23rd season at the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, one of the best winters ever: lots of snow, many days of good stability, and no fatalities. It has been nine years we’ve had this combination.
Riding in the sidecountry is fun, and it is marketable. Google ‘sidecountry’ and you get 438,000 search results. As more people recreate in the sidecountry, ski areas promote it, equipment manufacturers capitalize on it, riders benefit through new technology and increased availability, the media eats it up, more people want the experience, and WHAM!
Since 1997 forty one snowmobilers have died in avalanches in Montana, the most of any state in the nation. Twenty of these fatalities occurred in the Gallatin National Forest of southwest Montana, and thirteen occurred during HIGH avalanche danger.
Slope angle should be one of the first things that comes to mind when traveling in the backcountry. It is a primary factor in every avalanche. Avalanches happen when four ingredients are present: a slab, a weak layer, a trigger and a slope angle steep enough to slide, generally between 25-45 degrees. Not all slopes are steep enough to avalanche and some are too steep to regularly form slabs. Recognizing what slopes are safe to ride and what slopes are prone to avalanching is an important part of making safe backcountry decisions.
The newest piece of avalanche safety gear to hit the market in the U.S. is the avalanche airbag. These backpacks have a canister of compressed gas that immediately inflates a large balloon when the emergency handle is pulled.
Statements of “warming” triggered dry snow avalanches have become common in the last few years. The public mentions it frequently and it is increasingly referred to in avalanche advisories and classes. The evidence presented includes increased creep rates, wild swings in net solar radiation and avalanche activity occurring naturally and with human triggers due to warming temperatures. These statements occur with certainty and regularity but with scant data.