SHERIDAN — The last time a person died from an avalanche in the Bighorn Mountains was in 2016. According to a report published by the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center, a 39-year-old snowmobiler died in the area near Hunt Mountain Road Feb. 19, 2016.
While avalanche deaths in the Bighorns are less common than other areas of the state, avalanches are not random occurrences in the local mountain range.
Sheridan County Emergency Management reported an avalanche Feb. 3 of this year.
Jeff Shanor has been snowmobiling in the Bighorns most of his life. Shanor said there needs to be more awareness in the Bighorns about the dangers of avalanches.
The Bighorns have an area off U.S. Highway 14A that is prone to avalanches. Bighorn National Forest Public Affairs Officer Sarah Evans Kirol said there is a sign posted, warning those who are traveling down the trail. The avalanche area is near a groomed trail used by snowmobilers.
Areas off of groomed trails pose avalanche danger and the U.S. Forest Service cannot place a sign on every hill where an avalanche could occur, Evans Kirol said.
Hills that are primed for avalanches have a slope between 30-45 degrees. Other degrees of slopes can have avalanches but 30-45 degrees is the primary range for avalanches, Evans Kirol said. North facing hills have a higher chance of having avalanches.
As snow falls throughout the winter, different layers form. At a certain point, there is too much weight on the slope and gravity takes over, sending the accumulated snow down the mountain side.
If the layers of snow do not have the chance to bond together then the top layer will slide. If the base layer of snow is rounded, there is a better chance the top layer will give way.
Other factors, such as snow that is wind-loaded on the tops of hills and mountains, creating a cornice on the peak, can break off and slide down the mountain causing an avalanche.
Extra weight of a person on the slope can help set off an avalanche, too. Snowmobilers and backcountry skiers are at higher risk of being caught in an avalanche since they spend more time on slopes than snowshoers. But snowshoers can still cause avalanches by breaking the snowpack. This breakage can travel up a hill, creating an avalanche, Evans Kirol said. This is less likely to happen, but possible.
Evans Kirol said awareness and education play a big role in keeping people safe.
Snowmobilers enjoy trying to climb up hills and out-climb their friends, Shanor said. Knowing the conditions and how avalanches form can help snowmobilers understand if a hill is primed to slide.
Knowing that a cornice on the top of the hill is not a stable area to ride is important. Someone trying to go over the drive could set off an avalanche, even riding on the top of the ridgeline above the cornice could set off an event.
There are avalanche classes offered in the Bighorns that can help educate and inform people, Evans Kirol said. Once people are informed, caring for the proper gear is important.
Shanor, a former snowmobile guide, said he always carries a probe and beacon with him and requires anyone riding with him to do the same.
The avalanche classes teach attendees how to stay safe and what to do in an event of avalanche, but often the gear is what will save lives.
The beacon is a radio transmitter typically clipped onto a rider. In the event of an avalanche, it can be used to determine a person’s location below the snow. The probe is a collapsible stick that allows those on top of the snow to determine the exact location of the person.
Time is of the essence when searching for a person buried in an avalanche and the beacon helps aid that search.
Shanor said even if companion riders saw the entire avalanche and how it unfold, the spot where a person is last seen before the snow overtook them could be 50 feet uphill from where they ended.
Shanor suggests a snowmobiler should always have a shovel with them as well.
The Bighorns are a great place to have winter fun, but experts noted that being aware of the dangers can help the fun continue and prevent a tragedy.