Each winter forest service offices, search and rescue groups and organizations offer back country safety and avalanche awareness education, and each year we read of people killed in avalanches.
The Flathead National Forest has been teaching Advanced Avalanche Awareness classes for several years and will continue to do so, but there’s an effort to shift the focus of these classes from how avalanches occur, to individual decision making in the back country.
Flathead National Forest Snow and Avalanche Specialist Stan Bones has been studying snow slides for nearly 30-years. Wintertime back country enthusiasts in the Flathead will recognize Bones as the tall, thin, soft-spoken man who teaches the avalanche courses for the forest service. These Advanced Avalanche Awareness classes take place in January, and include field days. Bones says a couple of years ago they started “Special Topics Workshops”. This years’ workshop is called “Avalanche Danger, Risk Management, and How did things go wrong?”
“What I’m seeing now is we’re having more people in the back country with avalanche understanding, but yet we’re not seeing a reduction in the avalanche accidents,” Bones said it’s not so much a lack of understanding about what makes for dangerous conditions, but making decisions to mitigate the risk. He said the Flathead area is averaging one avalanche fatality about every year and a half. Last winter there were three avalanche fatalities in the greater Flathead area.
“We’ve had as many as 5 fatalities a year; back in 1969 and 1993, Peter’s Ridge and Mount Cleveland. But, last years’ event with three separate accidents was kind of a shocker for us,” Bones said the special topics class looked at the three fatalities from last year as case studies.
“Every avalanche accident and every avalanche fatality is a tragic event, and it’s even more of a tragedy if we fail to learn from those situations, because we’re destined to repeat them,” Bones said.
Bones says the avalanche awareness classes teach safety tips like traveling in groups, having an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe, and recognizing dangerous weather patterns and weak layers in the snow. Ignoring the signs and skiing an unstable slope Bones says is making a decision that increases the risk instead of mitigating it.
“When you’re travelling in the back country in the wintertime, you need to accept that there’s 100% of the time there’s an avalanche risk there, and that it then becomes imperative that, for your own safety, for the safety of the group, that you focus on managing that risk, reducing it as much as possible,” Bones said.
Bones said education about avalanches never stops; even avalanche advisories are part of an ongoing conversation about what’s happening in the snow pack, and how past and projected weather events could impact the terrain.
More information about avalanches and upcoming classes is available at flatheadavalanche.org.