Shortfall in Avalanche Detection Funds
Rise in fatalities among Western recreationalists brings call for more money.
BOZEMAN, MONT. — Racing toward another tragedy, Karl Birkeland is destined for the Beartooth Mountains as snowflakes the size of quarters swarm around him.
Today, his job as a federal "snow ranger" with the Gallatin National Forest is to investigate the cause of an avalanche that killed three snowmobilers on the steep slopes rising above Cooke City, Mont.
Long before he arrives, Mr. Birkeland already courts a detective's prescience of what he might encounter. "I figured it would be bad, and it was," he says. "I had a pretty good idea of which slopes were ready to slide."
This winter, more than two dozen people have perished in American avalanches from Alaska to Utah. What makes the rising toll so difficult to accept for experts like Birkeland is that most of the deaths were preventable if only the casualties had armed themselves with better information and equipment.
As director of the Gallatin National Forest's Avalanche Center, Birkeland is a leading authority in predicting where and when avalanches may occur. Like an Inuit, he speaks a special language that uses dozens of words to describe varying kinds of snow.
And he also is one of the few Forest Service staffers who hold a doctorate in avalanche prognostication.
Every morning before sunrise, Birkeland and colleague Ron Johnson assess the overnight snowfall, collect field reports, check satellite photographs, and ponder the latest word from the National Weather Service.
After the information is congealed, they recite a tape-recorded phone bulletin, which assesses the present avalanche danger and warns recreationists where they may find trouble. Literally, experts say that hundreds of people's lives have been saved thanks to their reports.
Despite convention wisdom, research shows that over 90 percent of avalanche-related fatalities are triggered not by natural snow slides but by humans moving across unstable snow packs.
Birkeland and Mr. Johnson say it is clear why 1998 has turned into a perilous year for people traversing remote areas of the Western United States and Canada.
Below-normal snowfall, perhaps linked to El Nio in early winter, was transformed into sugary granules called "depth hoar." Then, with recent storms depositing heavy deep snow on top, Birkeland says that precipitous snowfields from Montana to New Mexico are now set on a "house of cards" ready to tumble.
In 1997, Birkeland and a small army of volunteers perfected a model for evaluating the physics of snow structure.
Ascending into the Bridger Mountains that tower over Bozeman, Birkeland's crew dug 70 snow pits in a single day and studied what makes certain slopes more susceptible to avalanche than others. They discovered that depth hoar was a common culprit.
While researchers can deploy explosives to control slopes laden with depth hoar at developed ski areas, taming troublesome terrain in remote Forest Service lands is far more problematic.
Backcountry forest lands in the West are becoming increasingly inundated by a new breed of recreationist, Forest Service officials say. These extreme adventurers seek out steep pitches that previously were beyond reach of normal weekend warriors.
In Montana, where Birkeland and Johnson are headquartered, the number of skiers and snowmobilers has increased threefold over the past six years. Such growth has elevated the need for reliable avalanche reports to keep visitors out of harms' way.
Since 1990, the number of people seeking out daily avalanche advisories has jumped from 4,000 to 37,500.
Operated on a shoestring budget of just $35,000 plus a lesser amount in donations from businesses and other agencies, the Gallatin Forest Avalanche Center is considered the first line of defense in protecting winter recreationists from an avalanche.
But this Forest Service facility, and a half dozen other avalanche centers in the West, have precious few dollars in hand for avalanche research and forecasting.
"Until the agency renews its commitment to avalanche research," says Don Bachman, executive director of the American Association of Avalanche Professionals, "more people are going to put themselves in jeopardy."
Although he doesn't boast about his predictions, Birkeland says on the day the three fatalities occurred, the public message explicitly cautioned that human-triggered avalanches were likely.
He says that personal radio beepers that transmit a signal are essential pieces of backcountry equipment for skiers and snowmobilers.
European studies suggest that if a person is alive when an avalanche stops, there is a 92 percent chance of survival if the victim is found in 15 minutes. If the rescue takes 40 minutes, the chances drop off to 30 percent.
"Our job is to keep the public informed and let them make their own decision," says Birkeland, who has taught hundreds of avalanche education seminars over the past six years.
"We can only go so far in telling them about the risk. After that, they are on their own."