Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Beware the Avalanche

I am not talking about hockey. One thing that is new and different about living among the northern Rockies is the ever present danger of avalanche. That hit home huge during this new year when one of our eighth grader's classmates lost his father in an avalanche down near Big Sky (more on that to come below).

Avalanche dangers are severe this winter with a mostly deeper than normal snow pack, a soft sugary base, extreme changes in temperature and high winds leading to multiple unstable snow and ice layers. Getting caught in an active avalanche is like being trapped in a spinning dryer. After the avalanche settles, even if a victim survives without serious injury, the troubles have only just begun. Victims are likely to be disoriented, buried alive and trapped with little or no available oxygen.

An avalanche can be triggered by snow or ice falling off a bow of a tree, by a hiker, skier or snow shoer, by a wild or domesticated animal, by a snow machine, or by some other movement or projectile, or by the sheer weight of accumulated ice and snow and a gust of wind.  

"What should you do if you are caught in an avalanche?" The Los Angeles Times asked John Snook, avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

At the first sign of an avalanche, he suggests thrashing around as if your life depends upon it -- because it does. Thrashing, or "swimming," can help you stay atop the slide and the snow, making survival more likely, he said Monday.
If you are being enveloped by snow, do your best to keep one arm straight above your head. This serves two purposes. It can help you figure out up from down, which is not always possible if you've been tossed around and become disoriented, Snook told The Times.

And, if you're lucky, your gloved hand could be sticking up above the snow to help rescuers find you.
With your other hand, Snook said, try your best to create an air pocket in front of your face before the snow becomes too compacted. People buried in avalanches smother, so an air pocket could provide you with enough air to survive until help arrives, he said.
An air pocket can also make room for this trick: If you're stuck in the snow and you can't tell up from down, spit. Gravity will tell you which direction to move -- assuming that you can move.
Snook counsels avoidance and preparation are each necessary tools. 
Snook also suggests that adventurers understand the basics of avalanches, and use such information for their safety. For example, avalanches cannot occur on slopes that are less than 25 to 30 degrees. When plotting out routes, such knowledge can add an extra cushion of safety so that outdoors lovers can focus on safely getting to their destination instead of courting danger along the way.
The best way to avoid an avalanche is to take precautions from the get-go. "Every mountain in the West has a local avalanche center," he said. Every snow adventurer should be versed in the weather forecast, the snowpack conditions and the avalanche danger rating before venturing out for the day.

Consult the forecast, research the area that you're planning to traverse and, most important, don't allow skiers' "powder fever" to overrule your better judgment, he said.

When traveling in avalanche-prone areas, don't move together as a pack. Each skier or snowboarder should navigate the stretch ahead alone. That way, if disaster strikes, survivors can alert rescuers to the victim's whereabouts.

Everyone trekking into the snowy wilderness -- snowboarders, skiers, snowmobilers -- should be carrying an avalanche survival kit containing a snow shovel, a beacon that is worn on the body, and a probe. High-tech probes work hand-in-hand with the beacon to locate a victim and can even poke air holes in the snow to help victims breathe until they can be rescued.

"The whole idea is to just buy yourself some time until help can arrive," he said.

A relatively new device, a flotation air bag, can be deployed in the case of an avalanche. It's being credited with saving the life of one of the skiers, Elyse Staugstad, who was also caught in a ... deadly slide.
Avalanches have hit early and often this winter. In nearby Idaho,
Avalanche covers Idaho Highway 
Posted: Jan 12, 2014 11:38 AM by Meteorologist Adam Bell 
Updated: Jan 12, 2014 12:11 PM 
According to the National Weather Service and the Idaho Department of highways, two avalanches slid across US-93 in Idaho. Both were in a similar location, the first crossed the highway near mile marker 345. It was 900 feet in length, 24 feet wide and 6 to 8 feet deep. The highway was cleared within a couple of hours. The slide was between Twin Lakes and Lost Trail Pass. 
Avalanche closes Hwy 21 in Idaho.
The second avalanche was 100 feet in length, 12 feet wide and 6 to 8 feet deep. Officials were able to clear the second slide, with all lanes open by 10 am Sunday morning. 
According to the Idaho Department of Highways, ID-21 is
closed between Grandjean Road and Banner Creek Summit, about 24 to 35 miles south of the Stanley area. The department says there is danger of an avalanche, though there is no information if there is any debris on the roadway. 
Locally here in Bozeman, the place to check for advisories is the Gallitan National Forest Avalanche Center. National forests throughout the west staff similar operations. The Avalanche Center is right on top of current activity. Major slides were reported just this last weekend.
We are in the midst of a very impressive avalanche cycle. Heavy snow and strong winds have pushed weak, faceted layers near the ground past their breaking point on many slopes - this in turn has produced widespread natural and human triggered avalanches. 
Below are a few of the more notable avalanche events that have occurred over the past few days: 
  • On Friday, a motorist was nearly hit by a slide that crossed the road on Montana Highway 287 near Quake Lake in the Southern Madison Range.
  • On Friday, a skier triggered a large slide on an east facing slope in Beehive Basin in the Northern Madison Range (photovideo).
  • On Saturday, heavy snow and strong winds produced numerous natural avalanches in the Cooke City area.
  • On Sunday, Doug and I rode into the Lionhead area near West Yellowstone and observed a large natural slide that occurred directly below the ridge. This slide broke 2-6 feet deep and failed on facets near the ground (photovideo).
  • On Sunday, skiers observed a massive full depth avalanche that had occurred on the east face of Mt. Blackmore in the northern Gallatin Range.  This slide took the entire winter snowpack and snapped mature trees in its path (photo).
  • On Sunday, a snowmobiler remotely triggered an avalanche from almost 400 feet away on Slatts Hill in the Buck Ridge area of the northern Madison Range.  The crown of this slide broke up to 6 feet deep and occurred on a heavily wind-loaded slope.
  • On Sunday, a skier observed natural avalanche activity on the south shoulder of Saddle Peak in the Bridger Range (photo).
There was a serious early season incident just outside of the boundary of the Bridger Bowl ski area.

December 23, 2013 5:28 am  •   
BOZEMAN — A man and a woman in their 20s have been injured after getting swept over a cliff in an avalanche while skiing out of bounds at Bridger Bowl. 
The Gallatin County Sheriff's Office says the avalanche on Bridger Ridge occurred about 3 p.m. Saturday. 
Authorities say the woman is a recent Montana State University graduate and that she suffered a significant leg injury. 
The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center says the man suffered minor injuries.

The fatal incident occurred  New Years day, northeast of Big Sky Montana in the Gallatin Range. The early reports were sketchy. 

January 03, 2014 10:00 am  •   
BOZEMAN – Search and rescue teams have recovered the body of a Bozeman man who died in an avalanche southeast of Big Sky. 
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said Thursday a helicopter carried search and rescue personnel to the site where 46-year-old Burton Kenneth Gibson was buried under 5 feet of snow Wednesday afternoon. 
Two 19-year-old men who were with him were able to find him using avalanche transceivers, but CPR efforts failed. Darkness and difficult terrain prevented officials from recovering Gibson’s body Wednesday night. 
Forest officials say the men were snowmobiling in the Onion Basin area of the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, which is off-limits to snowmobiles. There was an avalanche warning in the area as well.
Earlier this week, the Big Sky weekly newspaper published a riveting account of the fatal incident.
BIG SKY – When it snowed in late September and early October this year, many backcountry users knew it meant trouble. The early snow clings to high elevation north-facing slopes, slowly drying out and creating a weak layer at the bottom of the season’s snowpack. 
More snow blanketed the hills after Thanksgiving, followed by a bitter cold spell in early December that weakened the snowpack further. Then it dumped. 
Avalanches were reported throughout southwest Montana at the close of 2013, some more than 1,000 feet wide, and others on slopes barely steeper than 30 degrees. A New Year’s Eve storm deposited another heavy load, this time in the form of mixed rain and snow, and Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center forecaster Mark Staples issuedan Avalanche Warning on Jan. 1 for the northern Gallatin Range, which is south of Bozeman and northeast of Big Sky. This was the second such warning for that region in 10 days. 
“Very dangerous avalanche conditions exist,” Staples warned, rating the danger high on all slopes. “Travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended, and avalanche run-out zones should be avoided.” 
On New Years Day, three men rode snowmobiles into the northern Gallatins, planning to spend all day in the mountains. The group started at 9:30 a.m. from the Portal Creek trailhead, seven miles north of Big Sky on U.S.191. 
They were Ken and Kenneth Gibson, father and son ages 46 and 19, and Kenneth’s friend Zachary Walker, also 19. Ken Gibson was an expert snowmobiler, familiar with the area and aware of avalanche hazards, according to Staples. The younger men were experienced riders, as well, and Walker had been out riding with the Gibsons a few times prior. 
All three had avalanche beacons, probes and shovels, and were familiar with their use, and both Gibsons wore airbag backpacks. As the group traveled through the backcountry, they passed crown lines from recent large avalanches. 
Just before 2 p.m., they rode into the north end of Onion Basin, a remote area south of 9,948-foot Eaglehead Mountain. 
Kenneth got his snowmobile stuck, but because he was in the back the other two didn’t realize they’d lost him. Debris from a recent natural avalanche was visible on one of the steep, 500-foot slopes encircling the basin, and they kept what they thought was a safe distance from the slopes above, Ken riding up into a gentle meadow, and Walker continuing out across it. 
Walker saw the avalanche out of the corner of his eye just before it hit. “The snowmobile was swept out from underneath me,” Walker told EBS. “I can assume I bounced off a couple of the trees in the island where I stopped, because I have some good bruises and got folded in half a couple times.” He came to a stop mostly buried, his head covered in compacted snow but one arm free. He could barely breathe. 
“My first thought was to stay calm and try and save as much air as I could,” he said. “Then I realized that I couldn’t hear anything.” Feeling tree branches clued Walker in to his position. Using his hands until he could reach the shovel in his pack, he dug himself out. 
Shaking and cold, Walker could see Ken’s tracks first headed downhill, and then straight into the path of the avalanche. He thought he could make out Ken’s snowmobile near the toe of the debris, so he began a beacon search, working his way a few hundred feet down before picking up a signal. 
After pinpointing Ken’s location in approximately 10 minutes, Walker assembled his probe and quickly struck Ken’s boot. Digging, he uncovered Ken buried on his side, his head 3-4 feet deep. Walker tried calling 911 but couldn’t get a call through. He began CPR and after a few minutes dragged Ken out of the hole to a more level surface. 
In another 10-15 minutes, Kenneth appeared, having freed his snowmobile. The two hardly spoke as they did CPR for another half hour, Walker said. After 40 minutes, there was still no sign of a pulse.
“We both knew that we had to get out before it got dark on us, but it was pretty difficult for Kenneth,” Walker said, referring to the decision to leave Ken. 
Aerial view of January 1 avalanche site.

With one snowmobile destroyed and another buried in the avalanche debris, they rode the third machine two hours back to the trailhead. At 6:30 p.m., they reached 911 via the OnStar phone service in their car. 
Search and rescue did not attempt to launch a recovery that night. “If he’d been alive, we might have considered it,” said Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin, whose office commands search and rescue operations. “Between the avalanche danger and the darkness, it’s really difficult to put our rescuers at risk.”
The follow-up investigation revealed critical facts about the avalanche:
Recovery team, January 2, 2014

From crown to toe, it ran 1,100 feet slope-distance and 500 vertical feet, with debris ranging from 5-8 feet deep. The average slope angle in the starting zone was 38 degrees. “While we can’t say for sure they triggered the slide, all evidence indicates they did,” Staples wrote in a follow up report. 
“Without active wind loading or cornices that could break and fall, the odds of it being a naturally triggered avalanche are very low.” 
Remote triggers like this demonstrate a very fragile snowpack, Staples said. “They knew the danger was elevated, they had beacons and rescue gear. They were riding in the trees and thought they were playing it safe, but they were underneath the slope… In these conditions with this snowpack, you can trigger avalanches from below.”

Speaking with EBS, Staples compared the weak layer to dominoes supporting a heavier slab of snow, with the “dominoes” extending from the steeper terrain down into the flats. “To get an avalanche, all we need to do is tip one of those ‘dominoes,’ and then the rest fall over.”
The December weak layer is likely to persist for much of the season. “When you zoom out to 30,000 feet up, the bar has been set pretty low this year in terms of stability,” Staples said. “We have some seasons that are generally a little more stable and some that are generally a little worse. This is one of the worst.”
Ken Gibson was unable to deploy his airbags.

The Avalanche Center shot these videos at the avalanche site.


Burton Kenneth Gibson (1967 - 2014)

There are many rooms in my Father's home, and I am going to prepare a room for you. When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will be with me where I am. John 14: 2-3. Ken's room was ready on Jan. 1, 2014.

Burton Kenneth Gibson, 46, passed away Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014 from injuries sustained in a snowmobile accident.

Ken was born Sept. 28, 1967 in Lewistown to Burt and Kathleen Gibson, both formerly of Lewistown, now from St. George, Utah.


Mr Gibson graduated from Fergus High School in 1987, and went to Spokane for collegeKen returned to Bozeman to take over the Rainbow Motel, and in March 1992, he married Rochelle Krillenberger.  They had two children, Kenneth Keltz Gibson and Blaike Burton Gibson. “He was one of the best riders I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen the best,” said Brad Grein, a friend who’d known Ken for 15 years. “He was an unbelievable dad, always spending time with his kids, a good son, a good father, a good friend.”

Ken Gibson's wife left this on-line remembrance.

Baby you are the most amazing husband and daddy anyone could ever have. I want to Thank You for letting me be a part of your amazing life. You raised 2 of the most amazing boys and I want to Thank You for being such a Wonderful influence in their lives. We will miss you horribly. I will always be your diamond. We Miss you babe and know you are watching over me and the boys. Shining Bright Like a Diamond. I miss you baby.

Your Forever Love.

 - See more at: http://www.legacy.com/guestbooks/bozemandailychronicle/guestbook.aspx?n=burton-gibson&pid=168882125&page=7#sthash.zuJenxgn.dpuf

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Kenneth and Blaike Gibson Education Fund, and can be dropped off or sent to any First Interstate Bank Location.

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