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Center Offers Tips for 'Avalanche Terrain'

While many Three Forks residents and others throughout southwest Montana enjoy getting outside to recreate during the winter, they should be mindful of increased avalanche dangers due to an above-average snowpack with weak layers.

The dangers of the 2022-23 season were quickly brought to the attention of Treasure State residents when a fatal avalanche claimed the life of a snowmobiler on December 31 north of Cooke City. A large avalanche was also reported on January 6 at Saddle Peak.

Based out of Bozeman, the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center provides area residents with current avalanche conditions and training opportunities.

David Zinn, an Avalanche Forecaster for the Center, also offered tips for venturing into "avalanche terrain."

According to Zinn, avalanche conditions are dependent on the weather and snowpack in the mountains.

"As far as the snowpack goes, we are sitting a little bit above average for the region, which means we've had more snow than typical. When we have more snow, we generally have more avalanches. Snowstorms and wind are some of the primary drivers of avalanche activity. While we like winter and like the snowfall it does tend to increase the avalanche danger on any given day," he said.

Center forecasters also analyze the layers within the snowpack that form throughout the season.

Zinn said this year, they have a couple of persistent weak layers, and when storms load those, they can result in larger avalanches.

"It is very common in Southwest Montana and the Rocky Mountain West to have some form of weak layers buried in the snowpack. While it is a problem, it is not an uncommon one," Zinn said.

As far as tips for the public, Zinn said the first thing they want to do is for people to get the appropriate avalanche gear that includes a beacon, shovel, and wedge probe. He added another piece of equipment to purchase is, an avalanche airbag.

Once they have the right gear, Zinn wants them to get trained properly.

"That gear only works if you know how to use it," he said.

Free and low-cost courses provided by the Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center can be found at The website also shows commercial classes that are available for area residents.

Once trained, Zinn wants people to gauge the recent history of the area they will be recreating. Zinn said they should look to see if there have been avalanches in the area, what the weather is doing and how this could affect avalanche danger. Most importantly, he said after assessing the area and snowpack, they should decide to go out or avoid the avalanche terrain, which he described as any steeper slope than 30 degrees.

Zinn said that after someone has the proper education, has looked at the forecast, and is out recreating, they should look for signs of instability that might lead them to stay off steep slopes.

"We also recommend safe travel practices, making sure only one person at a time is exposed to the avalanche hazard. If something goes wrong, we have people in place for a partner rescue," Zinn said.

Avalanche forecast and the ability to sign up for a daily email with the forecasts are available on the center's website.

Karl Birkeland founded the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in the early 1990s. Zinn said Birkeland saw the use of avalanche centers in other areas of the country and felt this would be a good spot to have one.

He added that Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Service is a non-profit that works in partnership with the Forest Service to fund operations and educational programs. The center has grown from one employee to four full-time forecasters.

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