In early January, Justin Steck found himself buried up to his armpits after an avalanche swept him 800 vertical feet down a backcountry run in Glacier National Park. His head was bleeding, and he would later discover he had a broken arm and six broken ribs.
But the 34-year-old Missoula man is alive, and Steck is grateful for that.
Steck dropped into a run in an oft-skied area of the park dubbed "The Backstrap." He and a buddy had skied the same line the day before, though not from as high a start. Steck paused after a couple of turns. Then he heard a rustling coming from behind.
"I felt a ton of pressure, and knew I was falling," Steck says.
The slide had broken above him, and Steck was swept up in its path. The avalanche carried Steck through a stand of trees, and eventually deposited him upright with his face and one arm exposed. He remained there as the snow's hostage until his friend rode down to dig him out. Steck's friend had also been in the slide path, but managed to ride to safety.
"I'm very lucky to be alive," Steck says. He also says it's remarkable he wasn't more severely injured.
Though it's probably not in his plans to ski again this season, Steck says the harrowing experience hasn't deterred him from eventually hopping back onto the slopes again when his body does fully recover.
Lurking behind the blissful joy of backcountry skiing is the ever-present risk of avalanche danger. Every skier mitigates avalanche risk in a different way. Most will probably cruise through a formal course covering avalanche basicsa series of classes blandly dubbed AVI-1, AVI-2 and so forth. Others will learn from more experienced skiers.
A healthy portion of backcountry travelers will also assess conditions ahead of time by checking avalanche advisories. Missoula Avalanche is the local backcountry bulletin service, whose advisories are run by a team of three forecasters. Steve Karkanen is at the head of that group, and for him, getting backcountry skiers though an avalanche awareness course is just as important as getting them to check current slide conditions.
Despite the gamut of cautionary measures one can take, there is no de facto formula for staying safe in the backcountry. There remains too much uncertainty about how and why slides occur to ski risk-free 100 percent of the time.
But in Montana, one group of Bozeman-based researchers is at the nexus of where backcountry experience meets hard science. For Montana State University engineering professor Ed Adams and his "snow pack" of graduate students, understanding the relationship between snow and environment is helping them to better identify the specific conditions that grease the gears for avalanche activity.
Between Adams' research and Karkanen's advisories, the hope is that backcountry skiers like Steck can rely on solid information more than luck to avoid future catastrophes.
Ed Adams has been in the snow business for over 30 years, and skiing definitely came before engineering.
"My first bachelor's degree was in English. I was ski bumming down in Utah—bartending, waiting tables, that stuff—and I ran into some people who suggested that I go back and get a science degree if I really wanted to play in the snow," Adams says. He completed a second bachelor's degree in earth sciences and geophysics and has been studying snow and ice ever since.
Adams fits the profile of someone who has spent a lot of time outdoors. Ice-blue eyes stare from a weathered face tanned by countless days in the snow-reflected sun. His tall, athletic frame lives up to what his graduate students say about his skiing: The guy can rip. When asked about his skiing, Adams shrugs off the question by acknowledging how fortunate he is to get into the field so much for his work.
Early in Adams' career, avalanche studies involved experimental methods not for the faint of heart. Imagine a small outhouse-sized shack fasted to a pristine white snow face between 30 and 45 degrees. Throw some dynamite into the mix. Now imagine Adams in that shack as the avalanche lets loose. The thought was, what better way to study an avalanche than from the perspective of its slide path?
"We don't really do that anymore," Adams chuckles.