By Robert Lucke
By this time last year, several people had died in avalanches. Several were in the Marias area. So far this year conditions are not much better, at least on the east side of the Rocky Mountains.
Fortunately for the winter recreationist, there is a wealth of information available to make a cross-country skiing or snowmobiling trip safer. Not only that, there are things that winter recreationists can do out in the field to ensure safety.
First, when skiing or riding in the backcountry, avoid bare, snowpacked slopes, particularly those in shaded areas of mountains. And never roar up one of those slopes to see how far the snowmachine can go. That is a dangerous activity that can quickly lead to avalanches.
Secondly, go to the local sporting goods store and buy transceivers for all people in your party. These are instruments that recreationists wear. They have a send mode and a receive mode. When they're in send mode, people above the snow can pick up a sound in receive mode that makes it easier to locate someone trapped under snow. Already in Montana this season, transceivers have been credited for saving at least one life. Available at most ski areas, transceivers cost from $225 to $300.
More important than a transceiver is a toll-free number in Montana. By calling 800-526-5329, the recreationist is instantly in touch with a wealth of weather and avalanche information in northwest Montana on both sides of the Continental Divide.
Nearest to Havre and the Hi-Line, avalanche trackers have measuring sites at Many Glacier and Big Fork. Both sites give daily conditions, current weather and projected dangerous conditions coupled with a generous dose of practical warnings. The number is valuable for anyone going into snow conditions in the Rocky Mountain front from the Canadian border to the Augusta area.
Last week, the center rated avalanche conditions east of the mountains as considerable. For people disturbing that snow, avalanches were rated as probable. Avalanches started by natural causes were rated as possible. A heavy layer of hoary frost was reportedly making snow conditions even more dangerous.
On the west side of the mountains, avalanche danger that day was not nearly as extreme as on the east side. Danger on the west was rated as possible when caused by humans and unlikely by natural causes.
That same day the hazard analysis produced a rating of considerable on the east side of the mountains and moderate on the west side.
The Internet has a wealth of information about avalanche conditions all over the western United States.
But most important is to practice good safety standards when in the backcountry any time of the year.
Each year folks from this part of Montana are caught in avalanches and die before being dug out. Most of those deaths could have been prevented by people checking conditions, staying out of unsafe areas, and always wearing transceivers.