Viva la Niña 

Taking the temperature of the state's epic ski season

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Pushing the limits

Increased winter fun also means increased danger

When Don Gisselbeck and his buddy headed into the Bitterroot Mountains on Oct. 24, 2009, the weather forecast predicted only an inch of fresh powder. The pair expected a quiet hike up East Trapper Peak and a meandering ski down.

"We're relaxed, not thinking of avalanches," Gisselbeck recalls.

click to enlarge Goggle day: Alex Dunn finds deeper meaning on Lost Trail’s South Face. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Gisselbeck, a 55-year-old ski technician at Missoula's Trail Head and avid outdoorsman, admits he should have known better. He's ascended slopes all over western Montana and knows the rules governing how to handle oneself in the backcountry; foremost among them is keeping an eye out for avalanche-warning signs. However, as he and his friend encountered another duo making its way up the mountain, Gisselbeck says they remained oblivious as the wind picked up and the snow deepened.

"That's the first clue," Gisselbeck says. "We're just marching along, paying no attention. I'm actually breaking trail for a good shot of this. I'm feeling strong. These young ones aren't really passing me."

Gisselbeck stopped at an apron beneath Trapper's cliffs to take in the view and put on his ski boots, while the other three kept hiking toward the peak. He didn't rest long—"got to prove that I wasn't worn out"—but just as he started back up, he heard a yell.

"And I see three people and a dog tumbling right toward me," he says.

The avalanche carried the others roughly 60 feet down the mountain and knocked Gisselbeck sideways. Unable to control his limbs, he bounced down the slope in a sea of white.

"I was going where that snow was going," he says.

Gisselbeck tumbled roughly 300 feet into a rocky, snow-covered field. He was partially buried, his left wrist broken and a nasty gash on his right elbow. Despite being severely shaken, Gisselbeck extracted himself from the pile without assistance.

"I just stood up and hyperventilated for 10 minutes," he says.

The others also made it out. Today, nearly a year and a half after surviving the avalanche, Gisselbeck remains acutely aware of the group's luck. It's been especially tough to forget this season as reports of snow-related fatalities, injuries and close calls dot local headlines.

click to enlarge Snowbowl’s Griz Chair: Ride it if you dare. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

In mid-February, a 22-year-old snowboarder was buried and died in an avalanche in an unmarked area of the Bridger Mountains outside Bozeman. Just a week earlier, also in the Bridger Range near Frazier Lake, a backcountry skier was partially buried in an avalanche. After digging himself out, the skier escaped with frostbite and a fractured femur. Closer to home, two separate slides on Dec. 28 caught a pair of Missoula men outside Snowbowl's boundary. One man suffered a laceration to the head. Both survived.

Steve Karkanen of West Central Montana Avalanche Center says because backcountry adventurers, armed with new tools, are going farther into the wilderness than ever before incidents like these are on the rise.

"Even this year, we're noticing more people who are leaving the ski area boundaries," Karkanen says. "The development of the AT, or the alpine touring gear, now is so prevalent in the ski community."

Karkanen warns that with advancing technology comes increased responsibility. It falls upon adventurers to heed warning signs like fresh precipitation, recent avalanche activity, unstable terrain, wind and rapid temperature changes.

"Those are the big red flags anyway," Karkanen says. "If you see one or two of those, any of those indicators of avalanche activity should overrule any signs that the snow is safe."

Avalanches aren't the only hazard facing local powder hounds. The season's prolific snowfall has also created dangerous tree wells near tree root systems. It's a booby trap of sorts for snowboarders and skiers who become immobilized in pockets of deep snow and suffocate.

Recreationists got a wakeup call about tree well hazards this season as two men, German exchange student Niclas Waeschle and Kalispell resident Scott Allen Meyer, died in separate tree well incidents at Whitefish Mountain Resort within two weeks of each other.

This season's tragedies place Whitefish Mountain at the top of the list among ski resorts nationally for tree well fatalities, says Paul Baugher, director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute and ski patrol at Crystal Mountain Resort in Washington. Baugher specializes in tracking non-avalanche-related snow immersion deaths.

click to enlarge Steve Karkanen and Dudley Improta check layers near Snowbowl. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

The same conditions that make Whitefish a prime skiing destination—piles of unconsolidated fresh powder—also set the stage for tree well accidents.

"It's a good news/bad news situation," says Baugher.

Since 1978, six people have died in tree wells at Whitefish. Prior to this winter, however, it had been more than 10 years since the last such accident at the resort.

Tree well deaths in Whitefish and nationally—Colorado's Steamboat Springs ranks second in fatalities among U.S. ski resorts, with five people dying there since 1978—are preventable, Baugher says. Skiing with an attentive partner who is capable of digging someone out makes the difference between life and death.

"It's all about educating the skier," Baugher says. "It's easy to avoid."

Education is one thing. Taking lessons to heart is another. Gisselbeck won't likely forget backcountry rules again.

"All of the warning signs were there," he says. "If we had stopped at any point when we were hiking along and talked about it, we would have noticed."

—Jessica Mayrer

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