For my first 62 years I didn’t think much about avalanches. They weren’t much of a risk on the Tappan-Zee Bridge (I refuse to call it the Mario Cuomo bridge). There was also little chance of me being caught in one in the Bronx or on the training ship. Things have changed, these days I find myself checking the avalanche forecast each winter morning.
To put any worry to rest, the chance of me being in an avalanche now is still pretty slim. Unless, of course, a search and rescue call comes in for someone a lot less careful where they go than I. For the most part, especially in winter, I tend to be a foothill wanderer. There are people, however, who go further. Perhaps on skis or snowmobile, they venture well into the backcountry sometimes to places they shouldn’t go.
Having grown up in Brooklyn, working most of my life in the Bronx and then moving to Montana I have come to understand there is a significant difference between the backyard and the backcountry. There is also a big difference in the amount of snow that falls in Rocky Mountain valleys, where most people live, compared to the backcountry, where some people play. At my house, slightly higher than the valley but below the snow line of the mountains, we have averaged 8-10 inches of snow on the ground this winter. Another 800 or 1,000 feet of elevation and that number turns into 8 feet of snow.
No matter where you live there is some kind of dangerous weather or natural event in the area. We don’t have hurricanes, coastal flooding or tornadoes here. We do have cold weather, forest fires and, in some places, avalanches. We also have an Avalanche Forecast Center run by the US Forest Service. These guys go out into the backcountry and check on conditions. It turns out there is a whole field of science that studies snow and avalanches. Who knew? You can check them out at: https://flatheadavalanche.org/
One of the new things I’ve learned is that the odds of getting rescued in an avalanche are slim going quickly to very slim as time ticks on. It really is best not to get caught in one which means being careful about where you play in the winter. In 2021 there were 37 avalanche deaths in the US.
If you do get caught in an avalanche there are ways to increase your odds of survival. For example, there is a device called an Avalanche Airbag Pack. The idea is that as you are being thrown down the mountain in tons of snow, this pack inflates and the balloon effect helps you rise to the top of the snow. As long as you don’t get smacked by a tree or other debris careening down the hill with you, this is supposed to work. I haven’t tried it.
If you do get buried, there are a couple of methods to find you. One has searchers using a probe which they stick in the snow. Picture a line of people walking slowly through the debris field pushing long plastic probes into the snow. If they hit something soft, like a body, a whistle is blown and everyone digs furiously hoping the victim is still alive. Kind of old school.
Another, more technical way, is to search with an avalanche beacon. This only works if the victim is wearing one also and has checked their batteries and turned it on before venturing out. In a search, searchers put their avalanche beacons into search mode and the device, about the size of a cell phone, beeps and has arrows on the screen directing you to the buried snowmobiler/skier/etc. As you get closer it beeps louder, faster and gives you a distance off. Better than a probe but not perfect.
Having been submerged, so to speak, in a maritime world most of my life I never knew all this stuff until we moved here. So many cool things!
There are a variety of ways to avoid the dangers of the backcountry, one of my favorites is to spend the afternoon at one of Kalispell’s many breweries!