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Why This Is a ‘Deadly Year’ in Backcountry, Explained by Montana Avalanche Expert

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This has been a “deadly year” for avalanches in the backcountry across the West, according to Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center director Doug Chabot. In January alone, there have already been 11 avalanche fatalities across the West, according to the American Avalanche Association. Those have involved skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and a climber.

Avalanches have claimed two lives in Montana this month. A snowmobiler was killed in an avalanche near Swede Creek in the Whitefish Range near Olney on Saturday, January 23. A Yellowstone Club ski patroller was killed in an avalanche near Cedar Basin in the northern Madison Range on January 19.

“We’re in the human-triggered zone right now throughout the West,” Chabot said during a recent interview with Michelle Wolfe on The Moose 95.1.

The danger can be traced to a poor snowpack structure. Here’s what happened, according to Chabot: Early season snow fell throughout the region. The snow sat there and got weak, turning into depth hoar, “big, crunchy, crumbly crystals that do a bad job of supporting the rest of the snowpack.”

Avalanche warnings started before Christmas, but then things quieted down — until recently. Lately, we’ve been getting more snow again.

According to Chabot, the weak layer is persistent and could last months or even the entire season. “Because it’s located at the ground, if you trigger an avalanche, it’s going to be big,” he explained. “It’s going to be four or five feet or deeper. And when we’re dealing with big avalanches, deep avalanches, they become unsurvivable. That’s why the fatality rate has really gone up.”

Areas where avalanches are more likely to be triggered include wind-loaded slopes where weak layers have been stressed, according to today’s advisory from the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.

If you are heading out to the backcountry, educate yourself first and make sure you’re prepared. Chabot offers some tips on how to be prepared:

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