In downtown Bozeman, Mont., the flashing blue light set atop the old Bozeman Hotel has long been a beacon for alpine skiers.
Whenever the bulb flickers like a siren beam, it means a significant amount of fresh snow has fallen miles away in the Bridger Mountains, setting off a pilgrimage among those who love to navigate powder.
But this winter, given a skyrocketing number of avalanche fatalities in the West, the light has also come to symbolize something else: extreme danger.
At least 27 people in North America - most of them backcountry skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers - have died in avalanches this year. Dozens of others have been swept down mountains only to escape miraculously. More inexperienced skiers eager to push backcountry extremes, combined with a highly unstable snowpack, have pushed the numbers up.
"It's been a bad year all over, but the classic conditions for a big avalanche season were created right from the very start, and they're probably going to continue until the end of the winter," says Doug Chabot, director of the Bozeman-based Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.
Like thick slabs of concrete lying on a base of sugar, fracturing snowpacks from the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies have prompted agencies such as the US Forest Service, which oversees tens of millions of acres of skiable terrain, to be on high alert. Almost every mountain village in the West now has a local number people can call for the latest information.
The consequences of avalanches have resonated loudest in Jackson Hole, Wyo., a ski-crazed resort community that has lost five people to snow slides in the past few months. The most recent fatality occurred at the end of February in an out-of-bounds portion of the Teton Range just beyond the Jackson Hole Ski Resort.
In fact, many of the accidents have taken place just outside ski areas, confirming the growing trend of skiers and snowboarders leaving groomed runs and opting instead to carve turns in places not as intensively managed for avalanche danger.
It's a phenomenon only likely to increase, experts say, as more natives of the East, Midwest, and Pacific Coast move to mountain towns.
"We've been seeing a recreation boom in the last five years. Snowboarders and snow-machiners are going places that five years ago they didn't go," says Mr. Chabot.
This past weekend, hundreds of recreationists gathered, as usual, on top of Teton Pass with the glistening white mantle of Glory Bowl rising above them.
The steep slopes flanking this pass are popular destinations for backcountry enthusiasts, and the recent spate of tragedies hasn't dissuaded many. "It hasn't stopped me or any of my friends," says Alex Worthington, a 20-something snowboarder originally from Massachusetts. "Because everything around here gets hit so hard, if snow is untracked people want to enjoy it."
However strong the lure of fresh powder, avalanche-safety gurus note that while backcountry is often dangerous, resorts are still safe, due to aggressive avalanche control regimens.
At the Bridger Bowl Ski Area in Bozeman, that control begins just before dawn at a hut perched on the highest ridge.
In the chilly morning air, teams of trained experts fan out and methodically work their way down, setting off two-pound bombs in strategic locations as they go. Sometimes, ski patrollers with special training from the US Forest Service also
fire off rounds from a 75 mm recoilless rifle to release the snowpack, using sonic shock waves, in areas where it is ready to slide. By the time the first skiers arrive at the mountain, the work is usually done.
"Avid ski-area enthusiasts often develop a false sense of security because we are so diligent in trying to make portions of the mountain safe," says Fay Johnson, Bridger Bowl's ski patrol director. "But they take the same attitude with them when they ski the backcountry."
As the winter begins to wind down, the situation in some ways is worse. Snow-starved skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers have been anxiously awaiting a major storm - which is exactly what could exacerbate the danger. "An 8-to-10 inch storm could bring us to the brink of having a scary scenario," Chabot says.
A ski mountaineer himself, Chabot hopes avalanche-safety courses and knowing the danger signs will become as much a part of the New West lexicon as the desire to explore the extreme environment.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor