Reducing avalanche risk
One snowmobiler was killed last year in an avalanche in Idaho’s Targhee Range, and so far this year two backcountry snowmobilers have died in avalanches in southeastern Idaho near Island Park.
Jeffrey Thompson, the director of the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center in Sandpoint, doesn’t take the fatalities lightly. Winter backcountry deaths are preventable, but there is a gray area in which education, savvy and self-preservation can help or hinder a backcountry enthusiast.
“Some people in the backcountry select safe routes to travel and some seek out that terrain,” Thompson said.
The best way to prevent being caught is to stay away from avalanche country. The best way to reduce risk, is to be educated, know what to look for, and carry the proper safety equipment.
“If you can avoid avalanche terrain, you can avoid being caught in an avalanche,” Thompson said. “That isn’t always the easiest thing to do.”
Evaluating terrain comes with experience and education.
The IPAC offers a variety of indoor and outdoor classes to backcountry enthusiasts and people who want to venture into the Idaho wilds in winter.
The center will conduct a two-hour avalanche class Feb. 2-3 geared for snowmobilers. The two-hour classroom session will happen at 6 p.m. the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation North Region Office, 2885 Kathleen Ave., Coeur d’Alene. The field session will meet in Mullan and will spend about five hours in the field. Call 208-769-1511. A free snow avalanche class is set for Feb. 10 at Silver Mountain. More information is available at www.idahopanhandleavalanche.org.
Three pieces of gear are paramount for anyone traveling in the backcountry including transceiver that can locate other transceivers, or send a signal in the event it is buried. A collapsible probe that can poke 60 to 100 feet under the snow to locate people in rescue operations, and a collapsible shovel. Cost of the items is between $300 and $500. An airbag backpack that inflates and can carry a buried person to the surface costs between $300 and $500.
The IPAC issues daily avalanche advisories for six Panhandle and western Montana zones that are frequently updated during the day. Classes focus on learning what to look for, and applying forecasts, snow conditions and hands-on learning to day-to-day backcountry activities.
“The most important thing we focus on is to know how to identify avalanche terrain,” Thompson said. “Is a slope steep enough to slide.”
By RALPH BARTHOLDT
To read Timothy James “T.J.” Grieser’s obituary, the words carefully carved like s-curves tracked in a snowy backcountry, is to be wrapped however briefly in a young life.
Grieser, of St. Maries, died eight years ago on a spring evening in the Idaho outback near the Montana border.
He was 29 years old when an avalanche buried him as he maneuvered his snowmobile down a slope behind friends on a 6,200-foot mountainside.
There appears to be an anomaly in the words of the obituary writer:
In a North Idaho where a relatively short, temperate warming spell can be counted on between July and September, Grieser wasn’t a fan of the warm months.
He liked winter.
“Summer sucks,” was a quote he often used, and these days it graces bumper stickers of cars, trucks and camp trailers across the West. In Grieser’s honor, a summer snowmobile race, called a “grass drag,” ran for several years in a field near St. Maries High School.
When Grieser died March 27, 2010, it was the evening of the last leg of a snowmobile ride in a backcountry destination where he and his friends, all accomplished sledders, rode annually.
Because of the mild spring weather, it would likely be their last ride of the season, the men agreed.
“They were following the rules,” Ananda Grieser said. “They did everything they were supposed to do.”
Ananda, Grieser’s wife, was pregnant with the couple’s first child when the snow broke loose on a ridge that Grieser traversed not far from where he and his fellow riders would load up their sleds for the evening before heading home.
He was almost there.
The group of technical snow riders had followed avalanche advisories earlier that day as they headed to Superior, Mont., from St. Maries, climbing the forest road that would take them southwest into Idaho’s St. Joe River drainage.
They carried shovels, probes and beacons, the necessary safety tools of the winter backcountry. They knew the risks and minimized them.
“They had all taken avalanche classes, more than once,” Ananda said.
The avalanche forecast that morning had been for low to moderate danger. Snow conditions were relatively stable when the men climbed the ridge on their snowmobiles that they would later in the day descend.
“It was one of those bluebird spring days,” Ananda said.
As the day progressed, however, a balmy spring sun radiated through a clear mountain sky. It eroded snow conditions, and hours later, by the time the men returned to their starting point, they were proceeding delicately on a snow pack they knew was no longer as stable as when they left their trailers parked near Missoula Lake on the edge of the Idaho-Montana border.
As a precautionary measure, each snowmobile rider went down the ridge solo, and then staged clear of danger as the next rider went down. T.J. was the last to make the descent. The hillside let loose underneath the track of his Ski-doo.
He tried riding out the slide, but along with the cement-like deluge of avalanche snow, was sent careening through a grove of trees and died of blunt force trauma.
Using their beacons, probes and the savvy learned in the state’s avalanche seminars, T.J.’s fellow riders found him within minutes under 4 feet of snow. They moved him to a waiting vehicle and met a Mineral County, Mont., ambulance as they followed their headlights down the mountain road toward Superior. Her husband had died as soon as he washed through the trees, Ananda said.
To use Grieser as an example of how quickly events can become tragic doesn’t do justice to the man whose life was a semblance of good, according to the many letters, messages and comments on social media, in newspapers and on a funeral home registry.
He was an athlete, a wrestler, a kind soul who befriended people easily and who would rather be in the mountains in winter than almost anywhere else.
Jeffrey Thompson of the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center in Sandpoint knows that avalanches are fickle. And that the best laid plans can be erased in a rush, because … Mother Nature.
“Avalanches don’t care how much education you have, or don’t have,” Thompson said.
And often, they occur in unexpected places.
“They don’t care if you’re in the backcountry or front country,” Thompson said.
Months before Grieser’s death a Farmington, Wash., man, Shane St. John, died in an avalanche on a trail ride at lower elevations near Calder.
Grieser and his group of backcountry sledders were experienced and took precautions, but more and more backcountry trekkers, skiers and riders venture to far out places without safety equipment or know-how, Thompson said.
“Advances in equipment have allowed people to get to places they haven’t been able to get to in the past,” Thompson said. “It allows the average snowmobiler or skier to get to places that were only accessible to experts.”
Anyone traveling 70 or more miles in a day in the hinterlands in winter is likely to venture into avalanche terrain, he said.
“If you avoid being in avalanche terrain, you can avoid being caught in an avalanche,” he said.
Freezing rain, snow, and variable temperatures and precipitation can result in the right formula for an avalanche that waits for a trigger to let loose. The IPAC website shows many scenarios that can result in avalanches.
Although late winter and spring is prime avalanche season, “They can happen pretty much anytime there is snow on the ground,” Thompson said.
The center offers a slew of information to help prepare outdoor enthusiasts for what they could encounter in the backwoods. IPAC also offers classes throughout the Panhandle.
One misconception, Thompson said, is that avalanches occur because of nearby triggers. In reality, they can be tripped from hundreds of feet, and farther, away.
“If there’s a weak layer in the snow, it is able to transmit energy great distances,” he said.
The effect of Grieser’s death on the St. Maries snowmobiling community took several forms. After the initial shock, said Rudy Brandvold, a former council member, snowmobiler and manager at St. Joe Oil in St. Maries, memorials sprang up for T.J. including the summer grass drags, and backcountry snowmobiling began a slow decline.
“I think it brought a lot of awareness,” Brandvold said.
Snowmobilers took avalanches more seriously.
“After that, most people wouldn’t ride with people who didn’t have beacons,” he said. “As far as remembering the disaster, I think it’s (still) in everybody’s mind.”
He can’t pinpoint a connection, he said, but fuel sales in Avery, Idaho, once the jump off point to sledders in the St. Joe Country, have dramatically declined over the past several years.
“We used to sell a couple thousand gallons a week there that was just for people playing,” he said.
The effect of Grieser’s death on friends and family is more austere. A memorial Facebook page collects comments regularly.
Avalanches in Idaho this year claimed two Montana men. Raymond J. Moe, 46, of Missoula, died Saturday while riding a motorized snowbike in the backcountry near Island Park, and Adam W. Andersen, 36, of Idaho Falls was killed Jan. 11 while riding snowmobile, also in the Island Park area.