Staying safe in avalanche country


The death of a snowmobiler on Dec. 22 above Horse Creek Road in the Wyoming Range was a tragic reminder that avalanche danger is always present for people recreating in the backcountry during winter. But there are steps people can take to be more avalanche aware and safe while they are out snowmobiling, skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing.

Bob Comey, director of the Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center, shared these steps with the Sublette Examiner.

  • Educate yourself about avalanches. Comey said that the key to staying safe in avalanche country is gaining the knowledge to determine what kind of snowpack and weather conditions will make avalanche terrain unstable. This experience will help people make sound, educated decisions about “safe passage” through avalanche terrain, Comey added.

People can take avalanche awareness classes through agencies like the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center. Comey and his team frequently travel to communities around the region to offer hands-on avalanche safety courses to local winter recreation groups.

Other agencies like TipTop Search and Rescue in Pinedale and the American Avalanche Institute offer courses, Comey said. The American Avalanche Institute provides a list of regional classes on its website, https://www.americanavalancheinstitute.com.

There are also books available and online resources if people want to educate themselves, Comey said. He suggested “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” by Bruce Tremper as a good beginner book. The website avalanche.org also offers a lot of educational material.

  • Always check the avalanche forecast. Avalanches are caused by a unique set of weather conditions and most avalanches occur during or immediately after a storm, Comey said.

The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center offers detailed morning and evening forecasts on avalanche conditions in the mountains around Sublette and Teton counties on the Internet. Comey said that anyone planning to head to the backcountry needs to check the avalanche forecasts to understand the conditions that exist on the day they plan to head out.

The avalanche forecasts are posted on the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center’s website at https://www.jhavalanche.org under “Forecasts.”

  • Have proper rescue gear and practice using it before you head out. Comey encouraged anyone heading into the backcountry during the winter to carry an avalanche beacon, a shovel and avalanche probe poles. Recreationists need to educate themselves on how to properly use the equipment before they head out.

Comey stressed that the avalanche rescue gear should be on a person at all times, not stowed away in a snowmobile. This way, if a snowmobile flips in an avalanche, the rescue gear is still on hand.

Rescue beacons allow group members to locate a companion in an avalanche. The avalanche probes are used to safely poke in the snow for the victim before the shovel is used to remove snow.

  • Never travel into avalanche-prone terrain alone. Always travel with a companion or group, Comey said. The more people there are in the group and the more knowledgeable those people are about avalanches, the better the chances are for survival, he added.

Rescue needs to happen right away, Comey said. If the victim is in a group, they can be rescued quickly in what Comey called a “companion rescue” versus waiting for an “organized rescue” that may take valuable time for authorities to organize.

Comey encouraged groups to travel across avalanche-prone terrain one at a time. With only one person in the danger zone, the others will remain safe if an avalanche is triggered and can quickly come to the rescue.

Snowmobiles pose an added risk because of their weight, Comey said. Snowmobiles can get stuck or bogged down on an avalanche-prone ridge and the natural tendency is for the other snowmobilers to drive up and help.

But Comey cautioned snowmobilers that the weight of two machines on the slope will increase the risk of triggering an avalanche. Other snowmobilers should “hang back” and watch from a safe distance until the situation is resolved or wait for help, Comey said. That way, the others will be ready to rescue the snowmobiler trapped on the ridge if an avalanche is triggered.

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