UNITED STATES NEWS

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

Feb 2, 2024, 10:34 PM

Doug Chabot with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center ascends Henderson Mountain in the Be...

Doug Chabot with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center ascends Henderson Mountain in the Beartooth Mountains, Jan 29, 2024 near Cooke City, Mont. Chabot was climbing to the site of a recent avalanche. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

COOKE CITY, Mont. (AP) — 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 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.”

United States News

Associated Press

EPA to delay rules for some power plants until after November election

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday it is delaying planned rules to curb emissions from existing natural gas plants that release harmful air pollutants and contribute to global warming. The agency said it is still on track to finalize rules for coal-fired power plants and new gas plants that have not come […]

20 minutes ago

Associated Press

Judge holds veteran journalist Catherine Herridge in civil contempt for refusing to divulge source

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal judge held veteran investigative reporter Catherine Herridge in civil contempt on Thursday for refusing to divulge her source for a series of stories during her time at Fox News about a Chinese American scientist who was investigated by the FBI but never charged. U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper in Washington […]

32 minutes ago

President Joe Biden, second from the right, looks over the southern border, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024...

Associated Press

Miles apart, Biden and Trump tour U.S.-Mexico border highlighting immigration as an election issue

Three hundred miles apart, President Joe Biden and likely Republican challenger Donald Trump walked along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas Thursday.

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Maryland State House locked down, armed officers seen responding

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland State House was locked down for an undisclosed security threat late Thursday afternoon. Reporters with officers on the ground floor of the building were told to lock their doors shortly after 5 p.m. by an aide to Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones. About 30 minutes later, police escorted […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Indiana Legislature approves bill adding additional verification steps to voter registration

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers passed legislation Thursday that expands the power of the state to verify voters’ addresses and adds an additional residency requirement for first-time voters. The bill’s Republican sponsor state Sen. Mike Gaskill called it a “commonsense bill” that adds protections against fraud, but voting advocates have blasted the changes as new […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Missouri Republicans try to remove man with ties to KKK from party ballot

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri Republican Party on Thursday denounced a GOP candidate for governor with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, saying party officials will go to court if necessary to remove him from the ticket. Southwestern Missouri man Darrell Leon McClanahan, who has described himself as “pro-white,” was among nearly 280 […]

2 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 

...

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.

...

Canvas Annuity

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

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