Slide Science 

Montana researchers dig into avalanche mechanics

Page 4 of 4

"We're seeing more and more young people accessing backcountry terrain without transceivers, or even a basic knowledge of what they're getting into," Karkanen says. "We're trying to bridge that gap."

In general, Karkanen feels like there's been positive growth of avalanche awareness in western Montana. "We've hit the backcountry ski and snowboard community pretty hard—I feel like we're making an impact," he says. "The number of fatalities speaks for itself. We haven't had very many fatalities yet the use has increased dramatically compared to what it was 10 years ago."

Snowmobilers, though, are a group Karkanen says the group has struggled to connect with. Avalanche statistics support that concern: Of Montana's six avalanche fatalities last winter, four involved snowmobilers, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the national record-keeping group of avalanche statistics.

Nationwide, last winter was one of the most lethal in recent history. Of the season's 34 avalanche fatalities, six of those were in Montana. This year, avalanches across the United States have claimed nine lives so far. None have occurred in the Treasure State.

•••

Posting accurate and timely avalanche advisories is made complicated by the fact that snow is constantly changing and shifting its shape. Weak layers in the snow can actually heal their own structural shortcomings under the right conditions. This sort of shape-shifting can be positive for skiers, and it's another genre of snow metamorphism on the minds of researchers at the Subzero Lab.

Last winter's layer of depth hoar kept Karkanen's attention for most of the season because of its persistence, but not every weak layer remains so dangerous for so long.

"Even if depth hoar does form, when you get a couple more feet of snow on top of it, it tends to heal itself, or it slides and the layer goes away," David Walters says. "If you're able to load the snowpack in a slow enough fashion, it can slowly heal itself. One of the major factors for getting snow to slide is not only the amount of load on a weak layer, but how fast it was loaded.

"If you get two inches a day for three weeks," he continues, "that's a lot better for stability than if you get that same amount of snow in a 24-hour period."

Karkanen says the work that goes on in the Subzero Lab has positively impacted Montana's avalanche forecasting community by highlighting the science side of what is happening in the field. Some of the lab's work has specifically improved his own forecasting methods.

Likewise, Walters and Adams both agree that the Subzero Lab's relationship with ski patrollers in the field is a major asset to their research.

click to enlarge Steve Karkanen, director of the West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation, heads into the field to check backcountry snow conditions. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Steve Karkanen, director of the West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation, heads into the field to check backcountry snow conditions.

"Relationships with surrounding ski patrollers are necessary for our work here," Adams says.

The Subzero Lab regularly collaborates with the snow staff at Yellowstone Club, Moonlight Basin, Big Sky and Bridger Bowl.

"If we see something in the field that we've been working on in the lab, we're eager to share that information and usually invite any of the patrollers over for a closer look at it," Walters says.

•••

The day Justin Steck found himself partially buried in the avalanche in Glacier National Park, he wasn't wearing a beacon. Steck says he's never used one in the roughly seven years he's been a backcountry skier. But he was wearing a helmet, which was found shattered into pieces near where Steck was found in the slide path. He has no doubt the helmet saved his life.

Just more than a month after the accident, Steck is still recovering. Daily tasks often prove difficult or frustrating, like when he's unable to twist open the lid of creamer to pour into his coffee. "I feel like I'm on the outside, looking in at my injured self," he says, almost as if it's still a surprise to notice his broken arm.

With regard to his future in the backcountry, Steck says he plans to cover the bases more diligently. "I plan on having a beacon, I plan on taking a class," he says. "Several great skiers have died in avalanches doing all the right things, so there's no guarantee. But since the possibility is death, I'd like to do what I can to mitigate the risk."

In Montana, that means he'll probably end up benefiting from improvements in snow science flowing from the Subzero Lab, and Steck will maybe even sit in on one of Karkanen's classes.

This story was updated Friday, Feb. 22, to correct last season's depth hoar figures.
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