The Avalanche Review, VOL. 16, NO. 4, FEBRUARY 1998
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA


a smaller, more remote kind of place

by Karl Birkeland

Who are we?

The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center is a regional avalanche center located in Bozeman that serves the public of southwest Montana. Like our bigger cousins in Seattle, Salt Lake and Denver, we provide avalanche education classes and daily avalanche advisories. Though we do not serve the impressive urban populations covered by the larger avalanche centers, our staff (one part-time and two full-time employees) caters to a rapidly growing population of backcountry users who cover an impressive amount of dangerous avalanche terrain. Our region encompasses Bridger Bowl and Big Sky Ski Areas, two resorts wellknown for their avalanche potential, and we share Bozeman with Montana State University, which has a rich history of snow and avalanche research.

Our primary focus is avalanche education, both through organized courses and our advisories. We teach a variety of courses and field sessions to groups ranging from boy scout troops to search and rescue groups to university classes. We have also been instrumental in providing avalanche information to other Forest Service folks involved with avalanche education throughout Montana, and those people have gone on to spread the avalanche gospel in their communities. Our second method of educating people is through the avalanche advisories themselves. Like the other centers, we do our best to put together lively, entertaining, and informative advisories for the public and the encouraging response we get (as well as our increasing call counts and web hits) indicates that this is working. We believe our courses and advisories are responsible for raising the avalanche awareness in our region to a new level. Now, groups that dig pits and carry rescue gear are mostly the rule rather than the exception.

One disadvantage we have over the major avalanche centers is that they are located in National Weather Service offices, and have all the NWS products, resources, and forecasters on hand. Luckily for us, better weather products are increasingly available on the internet and we have a daily morning chat with a forecaster from the NWS office in Billings. Still, we are data-starved compared to the larger centers. I turn red with envy when I see the extensive network of remote weather stations, ski areas, highway forecasters and backcountry observers that the other centers draw upon for information. Meanwhile, we make do with a handful of weather stations, two excellent ski areas, an extensive network of NRCS SNOTEL sites, and a growing number of skilled backcountry observers. Of course, being data-starved has its advantages means that we get to get out in the field and see what is going on, and we do our best to get out about 3 days per week.

Where'd we come from?

The idea for a full-time, Bozeman-based avalanche forecast center for southwest Montana dates back to the early-1980s, when Montana State University Professor Bob Brown and students Bruce Tremper and Dave Bryar put together a proposal and presented into the state. Though they did manage to elbow their way into a meeting with the governor, their proposal was eventually turned down. A couple years later Chuck Harris, a Forest Service employee in Livingston (20 miles east of Bozeman), got together with Bob Brown and they put together a network of folks from Bridger Bowl and Big Sky Ski Areas, Montana State University, Yellowstone National Park and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The group discussed the current avalanche conditions on a weekly conference call, and Chuck put a short blurb out to the newspaper on Fridays. When Chuck left for northwest Montana a few years later, Don Michel, Bridger Bowl's Snow Ranger, took over. In addition to the strong history of snow research at Montana State, being involved in this weekly effort was one of the things that drew me to MSU for my graduate work. After my involvement the first year, the Forest Service handed me the reins of the weekly advisories during my second year of grad school. That year I became intimately familiar with both the positive aspects (getting information to the public) and the shortfalls (a large area with minimal data coverage, little public exposure, and an inability to reach all the potential users) of the current system.

Anyone who runs an avalanche center will tell you that the most important thing you need is an advocate within your umbrella organization. For us that person was, and continues to be, Kimberly Schlenker, the Wilderness and Recreation staff officer on the Gallatin. I met Kimberly while teaching a National Avalanche School Phase 11 course at Bridger Bowl the year I was doing the weekly advisories, and together we worked on taking the avalanche information provided by the Gallatin National Forest to the next level. After meetings with all the interested local agencies and businesses, and lots of work with the Forest Service, we embarked on a two year experiment. The first year I operated the avalanche center by myself, forecasting 4 days a week and usually working seven. In response to safety concerns, we added Ron Johnson as a part-time forecaster working 2 days per week (while he worked 4 days per week up at Bridger Bowl) the second year. At that point, Kimberly and I said "enough is enough". I had the opportunity to leave and go do more graduate work, Ron and I were burning out in a big old ball of fire, and we decided that the only way to adequately provide avalanche information for our region was with two full-time positions. Luckily, the management team on the Gallatin agreed with us, and the avalanche center became a legitimate full-time operation. Ron and 1 both got fulltime jobs, and I delayed going to school for a couple more years. This past season we were able to hire Doug Chabot (who also ski patrols at Bridger Bowl) to work part-time, thereby increasing our advisories from 6 to 7 per week and giving us more time for avalanche education.

Where does the money come from?

Notice how these articles on the avalanche centers always have some sort of focus on funding? As you might have guessed, keeping one of these operations afloat is not easy Notice how I said that Ron and I both gotfull-time jobs? What I didn't say is that only mine is funded. We have to raise money through donations or grants for all the rest of our funding needs, including Ron's and Doug's salaries, and that fundraising responsibility primarily falls on mine and Kimberly's shoulders. It is not one of my favorite parts of the job! Our donated money has come from a variety of agencies and businesses, with our two primary supporters being Gallatin County Search and Rescue and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Snowmobile Safety Program. We've also successfully competed for a number of challenge cost share grants through the Forest Service and through the National Forest Foundation. Our primary support continues to come from the Gallatin National Forest, however. Recognizing the importance of that relationship, we changed our name in 1993 from the Southwest Montana Avalanche Center to the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. This change was welcome and recognizes the vital support that the Gallatin National Forest plays in the existence of this avalanche center, as well as the importance the Gallatin places on the services we provide

User Groups

Like all of the avalanche centers, we serve a diverse clientele. Though certain parts of our area sees heavy traffic from backcountry skiers and snowboarders, we also have an incredible number of backcountry snowmobilers, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 snowmobile visits on the forest every winter. While not all these folks are getting into avalanche terrain, we have a large group of riders who are pushing the envelope of what is possible on these machines ...and that means playing, and riding hard, in avalanche terrain. The result has been somewhat predictable, as growing numbers of snowmobilers have been caught in avalanches. We have been making a concerted effort at educating snowmobilers about the dangers of avalanches since our inception, and we believe those efforts have been paying off. You can now go into a cafe in Cooke City or West Yellowstone and hear groups of riders talking about slabs, weak layers and stability Most of the hard-core local riders carry, and know how to use, avalanche rescue gear. In fact, this year we have had two live recoveries of totally buried snowmobilers who were found with transceivers and dug up by their partners. In a third instance a group of fully equipped riders came upon a buried victim who did not have rescue gear, started a probe line and found the victim in about 45 minutes under 4 to 5 ft of debris. Though the victim did not respond to CPR, the efforts of these riders could have saved a life.

Extra-curricular activities...

As snow nerds with backgrounds in snow research, one thing that we've had fun doing over the years is mucking around with a variety of small research projects. Our proximity to the good research energy of Montana State University hasn't hurt things either, and we've had lots of opportunities to interact with MSU professors and students, and even keep a couple student interns busy. While the word "research" isn't precisely spelled out in our job descriptions, we've enjoyed working on projects that we've felt had the potential to improve our

avalanche forecasting efforts. Ron did lots of work, with my help, on developing the increasingly-used stuffblock test, which provides a field-portable, reasonably quantifiable method of measuring snow stability. I have done some work, with Ron's help, on the development of weak layers through near-surface faceting, a process that often leads to extensive avalanche cycles throughout our area. I have also been fortunate to have the support of the Gallatin National Forest as I collected data and wrote my dissertation on measuring patterns of snow stability throughout the Bridgers.

The Future...

In the future are simple. We hope to be able to continue what we have been working on the past ...avalanche education to a variety of users, avalanche advisories that are timely, accurate, and useful, some interesting research projects, and enough money to get it all done!

The Avalanche Review, VOL. 16, NO. 4, FEBRUARY 1998
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA