Anatomy of an avalanche: Despite few reports or deaths, safety and awareness vital in the Bighorn Mountains
Date posted: March 2, 2013
SHERIDAN — Several recent snowfalls that have blanketed the area created great conditions for winter sports on the mountain. However, with increased snow, comes increased danger from avalanches.
“I would say that given the recent snow we’ve had the (avalanche) potential has increased,” said Dave McKee, recreation program manager for the Bighorn National Forest. “We don’t really assign any standardized measurement, but I would say people would certainly want to be alert.”
Whether or not an avalanche occurs can be a complex mix of terrain, steepness of a slope, wind, the amount of moisture in different snow layers, temperature and other factors. Essentially, almost any sloped area can experience an avalanche when a layer of weak, unstable snow is located beneath other layers of snow. Sometimes a movement can trigger a snow slide, such as a person skiing or snowmobiling, and other times, the weight of snow simply reaches critical mass and can no longer hold.
McKee stressed that unlike some areas on the western side of the state where avalanche crews are hired specifically to monitor conditions and even set off controlled avalanches to reduce the chance of a catastrophic snow movement, the Bighorn National Forest does not have specific avalanche crews and winter users need to educate themselves and prepare for any emergency.
“We observe conditions as we patrol, but we don’t have a formal monitoring program,” explained McKee, noting that there are several field personnel that patrol the mountain regularly for both public safety and regulation enforcement. “It is on them. But of course, if we know anything, learn anything, see anything, we certainly pass that along.”
However, there is one notorious location in the northern Bighorns that has seen repeated avalanches in the past.
“There is one location that we sign on the forest that is a chronic place and that is on Highway 14A, just past the Hunt Mountain Road,” said McKee, noting that an avalanche in that area could also spill onto the highway itself. “It is a snowmobile trail (H Trail) and it is a groomed trail, so that is why we sign it. But otherwise, we don’t sign any other place on the forest. Conditions can change so fast, so you can’t hardly sign the whole forest, so it is critical for public users to know about avalanche safety and be observant for conditions when they go up.”
According to the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center, one person has been killed by an avalanche in the Bighorn Mountains. In 1972, 24-year-old backcountry skier Rick Caller was killed by an avalanche approximately six miles south of Burgess Junction near Owen Creek. He was buried beneath seven feet of snow and suffocated.
While anyone, including snowshoers and cross-country skiers, can be vulnerable to an avalanche, snowmobilers are at particular risk when riding on hillsides or ridges.
“Anybody could be in a situation like that for sure, but some of the good (snowmobile) riders like challenging slopes and rides, so they would want to be particularly conscious of snow conditions,” McKee said.
Luke Morss, along with Luke Sander, co-owns Back Country Navigators, a local snowmobile guide company. Morss said safety is always his first consideration when going riding.
Morss guides snowmobile clients on the forest and spends almost every winter weekend snowmobiling. He grew up snowmobiling in the Pinedale area where large avalanches in the steep terrain are a major concern and learned from a young age the importance of reading the terrain and gauging avalanche potential.
“As far as avalanche safety goes, I don’t think you can be educated enough about it,” Morss said. “I’ve been in a few; I know what it’s like. It is not fun.”
He said his safety precautions begin before he gets on his machine. He wears MotorFist clothing, which is specific for snowmobiling, and carries probes, a survival kit and an aluminum shovel in his backpack where it is all readily accessible in case of an emergency.
He also monitors the weather and terrain throughout the day.
“I try to look for some simple warning signs like if storms are coming in and what the temperatures have been all week long,” he said. “I also pay attention to shaded areas, up on ridge tops and if it is a spot where wind has been blowing. Temperatures are a huge thing as far as if we get a bunch of snow and it stays cold, the snow will stay sugary and the snow won’t set up. Two weekends ago I broke one (small avalanche) loose. There was a completely solid base layer but wind had blown a new layer on top and it broke loose.
“If something feels uneasy to me, I will stay close to the timber and hug the treeline because there is more vegetation and something to hold the snow there rather than a wide open space,” he added.
One piece of safety gear Morss recommends and requires his clients to wear is an avalanche transmitter or beacon that sends out an electronic signal in case of an avalanche or other emergency. These transmitters are carried on a person and if a person does become buried by snow, the transmitter allows a searcher to more quickly hone in on the location.
In addition to beacons, Morss wears air bags, a relatively new safety item. The bags are available in vest or backpack form and when the ripcord is pulled, they inflate and provide some buoyancy to help a person stay higher on a wave of snow and decrease the chances of ending up under several feet of snow.
“They are expensive, but it is cheap life insurance,” he said. “My business partner and I both wear them every single time we go out. We don’t leave home without them. I wish 10 years ago I had one. I was doing stupid things and just plum got lucky. Some people don’t get lucky. I haven’t had to pull the cord yet, and I hope I never have to.”