By Robert Lucke
Avalanches in December and January? Unheard of? Not at all concludes Glacier National Park's Back Country Specialist, Kyle Johnson.
Johnson said there are avalanches every month from November until spring and that they can be caused by extreme cold weather as well as extreme warm weather.
"Snowpack instability this time of year is caused by a shallow snow pack plus extreme temperatures," said Johnson.
Take Marias Pass, a cross country ski and snowmobile mecca.
"What happens is the ground is 32 degrees more or less. The atmosphere varies and with 8 inches of snow or less, somewhere in the snowpack the temperatures meet and form crystals and the snow doesn't bond. The snow is really super granular in nature and there is no base or traction," continued Johnson. "Snow crystals haven't bonded with each other on the ground. When this occurs we say that the snow has rotted out. Just skiing over that and skis sink."
That is the main snow base according to Johnson. Add to that rotted snow another 3 to 4 inches of snow, then some cold clear nights with surface hoar frost and a dump of snow on top of that, it spells trouble.
"It is like a house of cards. Just the sheer weight of the snow and the whole thing can slide," added Johnson.
So when snow machines go cruising in the bottom of what Johnson describes as "terrain traps," say the bottom of a narrow V gulch; if they sheer off the bottom of that snow, several acres of snow can slide down on them.
Johnson lists several things that winter recreationalists can do to keep safe from avalanches.
Get more formal education about avalanches. Take an evening or weekend class on avalanche safety.
Recognize avalanche terrain.
Always carry an avalanche beeper and an avalanche probe.
Expect an avalanche and remember that if you have to go for help, it is not a survivable situation. When buried under an avalanche, about five minutes is all the survivable time.
Winter recreaionalists are not recommended to travel during or right after a snow or a big wind event. It is best to wait a few days for the snow to set up itself.
Johnson has some words of advice for winter recreationalists.
"It could be a long winter and there is some pretty rotten snow out there," added Johnson. "Every time those big dumps of snow hit, remember even in the spring, that rotten snow is still under there."
The U.S. Forest Service lists some avalanche survival tips.
If you are caught in an avalanche:
Discard all equipment, get away from your snowmobile, make swimming motions. Try to stay on top and work your way to the side of the avalanche, before coming to a stop, get your hands in front of your face and try to make an air space in the snow as you are coming to a stop, try to remain calm.
If you are the survivor mark the place where you last saw the victim, search for the victim downslope in the flowline below the last seen area. If he is not on the surface, scuff or probe the snow with a ski pole or a stick, you are the victim's best hope for survival, if you find the victim, attempt to free him with a ski, a shovel, or other digging tool.
Do not desert him and go for help unless help is only a few minutes away. Remember, you must consider not only the time required for you to get help, but the time required for help to return.
First aid . . .treat for suffocation, shock and physical injury.