Avalanche forecasters try to curb deaths as skiers and snowmobilers flock to backcountry areas

Avalanche forecasters try to curb deaths as skiers and snowmobilers flock to backcountry areas

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, Minnesota, 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, Montana, reliving his brush with tragedy. “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 surging numbers of skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers visit backcountry areas since the pandemic.

More people means more chances to trigger fatal avalanches despite technological advances in safety equipment, including the airbag that saved Mlaskoch and kept him off the death tally for Cooke City. Avalanches in the area have killed 22 snowmobilers and 2 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 scattered 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% chance of surviving,” said Chabot. “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% 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 dame 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 (1.5 meters) down. He tossed icy grains from the hole. “You see I’m just shoveling sugar here,” he said.

He used a saw to isolate a column of snow and then repeatedly hit the top of the column with his shovel, increasing the force until a slab of snow broke about 2 1/2 feet (76 centimeters) from the top. It broke along the same fragile layer where the slope collapsed beneath Mlaskoch — a weak zone pervading the surrounding snow fields.

Cooke City is thronged with tourists by the thousands in summer, when it’s a bustling gateway to Yellowstone National Park. In the winter the mountain passes leading into town are closed and the community of fewer than 100 residents can be accessed only by driving all the way through Yellowstone from another entrance — a 55-mile (89-kilometer) journey past steaming hot springs, herds of bison and clutches of wildlife watchers huddled along the roadside in the cold.

After it snows — and here storms are often measured by the foot — snowmobilers and skiers pack the few hotels and inns. Snow machines buzz up and down the main street, often with a skier or two in tow, holding tight to a rope as they’re pulled into the Beartooths — 41 granite peaks ringed with massive snow fields that loom over town.

With so many deaths in their small community, Cooke City’s residents “take them personally,” said Kay Whittle, who runs the Antlers Lodge inn and restaurant with her husband Bill. Both are longtime members of a local search and rescue team that musters after accidents to help find and dig out fatal avalanche victims. Kay Whittle is also an EMT and deputy county coroner, tasking her with calling family members of the dead.

She and other business owners in recent years started more aggressively pushing their advice about avalanches, holding weekly public safety briefings at the Antlers Lodge that are promoted with flyers and by word of mouth in Cooke City’s hotels, restaurants, rental shops and two gas stations. On Saturdays at a backcountry warming hut used by snowmobilers, avalanche educators give basic rescue lessons including how to use avalanche beacons — transmitters that send a signal rescuers can use to find victims.

The equipment is expensive, but Mlaskovich attests that it’s worth it — and some local outfitters now mandate the gear before taking people out on trips.

“I’m sure these guys get tired of hearing, you know, listening to us preach to them about safety, but it’s gotta be done,” said Shannon Abelseth, a snowmobile outfitter in Cooke City. “We don’t like to send people home in body bags.”

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