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Environment & Science

Weekend Slides Signal Start of Avalanche Season

Two snowmobilers are waist deep in mountain snow with their snowmobiles on Mt. Abundance.
A. Bertolino
A snowmobile rider triggered this avalanche outside Cooke City December 14, 2019.

A series of avalanches near Cooke City this weekend hailed the start of avalanche season.

Snowmobilers triggered several slides in Cooke City, including one on Mount Abundance and several on Crown Butte.

"The one on Mount Abundance buried the snowmobiler’s sled but the rider managed to get off of the slab," says Dave Zinn, avalanche forecaster for the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center and education coordinator for the Friends of the GNFAC, the fundraising organization that supports the avalanche center.

"In the Gallatin Valley, Billings, Big Sky and even up to Helena and Great Falls we have avalanche awareness courses," Zinn says. "Last year we reached out to about 3,500 folks."

GNFAC has already trained 2,000 people this year. Zinn says the most important strategy to prevent triggering an avalanche is recognizing whether you’re in an avalanche prone area.

"The fundamentals of that is slope angle. And any slope angle that’s steeper than about 30 degrees is capable of producing an avalanche," he says.

The GNFAC recommends people get avalanche gear, including a beacon, shovel and probe. People can also attend avalanche trainings, offered every Friday in Cooke City.

The GNFAC installed an avalanche hazard sign in Cooke City last year. There’s also a beacon checker, which allows people to test their avalanche transceivers. This year, they’ve installed two additional beacon checkers at Buckridge and the Taylor Fork.

Zinn says people heading into the backcountry should review avalanche forecasts for their area before heading out.

Avalanche forecasts, reports and other regional snow news is available here:

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has additional safety tips and avalanche resources on their website .

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, of the 25 people who lost their lives in avalanches during the last season, three died in Montana and four died in Wyoming. Half were riding snowmobiles.