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Northwest Avalanche Forecasters Work To Reduce Backcountry Deaths

Bingaman Avalanche Idaho
McCall, Idaho avalanche forecaster Dave Bingaman shovels snow away from an area where he'll test the snow for stability.

This Northwest winter has been relatively mild. The snowpack in most of the region's mountains is well below normal.

But it's still been a deadly season in the backcountry. Four people from Idaho and one from Oregon, have been killed by avalanches in the Northwest.

There are four Northwest avalanche centers across the Northwest, where forecasters keep an eye on the region's snowpack.

Doug Nadvornick went out in the field with an avalanche expert in central Idaho.

Dave Bingaman spends at least four days a week in the backcountry. He's from the Payette Avalanche Center in McCall, Idaho. His ritual starts with towing his snowmobile to a parking lot.

Then he starts his snow machine and drives it down a ramp off the trailer.

Today, I'm tagging along, so Bingaman unbolts a second snowmobile. I've never driven one of these things before, so he gives me a quick lesson.

Dave Bingaman: “Here's your throttle. Brakes on this side….”

When the lesson's done, he hands me a helmet and pulls the starter cord.

Dave Bingaman: “It should start up on the first pull. Sometimes you have to give a little gas when you first start it.”

After a practice lap around the parking lot, off we go into the wilderness, which is surprisingly close.
Bingaman's mission is to get backcountry amateurs like me to think about avalanches and how to avoid them.

After riding on wide, well-groomed roads and then uphill on narrow trails, we get to the top of a ridge.
We get off of our sleds and onto our snowshoes.

We creep down a steep slope to a spot where Bingaman will test the snow. He opens his backpack and pulls out a little two-piece shovel.

Dave Bingaman: “One of the things we do a lot of is digging. What we're looking for is weak layers that are going to cause avalanches or potentially cause avalanches.”

Bingaman unfolds his measuring probe and thrusts it into the ground. With a jagged little saw, he carefully cuts lines in the snow to outline his test area.

Then he starts digging until he has a solitary column of snow, about four feet tall and a foot wide. He lays the shovel on top.

Dave Bingaman: “We're going to apply some stress and see what happens.”

Part of this column of snow collapses. Then he gets out a little piece of clear Plexiglas and, like Sherlock Holmes, inspects it with a magnifying glass.

Dave Bingaman: “We can actually look at these crystals and see what they are and try to figure out what it's sliding on. That's kind of what we do, what we're trying to figure out here.”

The prognosis? The avalanche danger on this slope is moderate…about a two on the center's scale of one-to-five…five being the most dangerous.

Dave Bingaman: “If you decide you're going to ski down below us right here, it's probably fairly stable snow. But that doesn't really hold true if you're on a different ridge or a different aspect somewhere.”

An aspect, in this case, is a mountain slope. Some of the snowpack around here, he says, is far less stable, probably worth avoiding right now.

Bingaman logs his data in a notebook. Later he'll go back to his office and write an avalanche forecast that he'll e-mail to more than 300 people who come to this backcountry regularly. That forecast is also available via the center's website and by phone.

Dave Bingaman: “Good morning, this is Dave Bingaman with the Payette Avalanche Center advisory. The avalanche hazard for the west central mountains below seven-thousand feet is moderate today…”

Later that evening in McCall, I join Bingaman at a workshop put on by the Friends of the Payette Avalanche Center.

Voice: “So predicting when and where avalanches are going to occur is tricky. Avalanches are an erratic phenomenon…”

This is part of a video with footage of snowslides, information about the best ways to avoid them and what you should do if you're caught in one.

The workshop is put on the Friends of the Payette Avalanche Center. That's a non-profit dedicated to backcountry safety. After the video's over, the group's Dave Williams gets out the three pieces of equipment he says all backcountry users should carry with them.

Dave Williams: “You need to have a shovel, a probe and a beacon. You could either have a tracker all-digital beacon, analog-digital, whatever. But know how to use them.”

Williams says that knowledge often means the difference between life and death. He says skiers and snowmobilers should travel in groups and be prepared in case of a snowslide. He says they have about 15 minutes to dig out someone who's buried before that person suffocates or freezes.

The message about the danger of avalanches hit home here in December, when a snowmobiler was killed by one about 30 miles south of here. Avalanches have killed 17 Americans so far this winter, including six from the Northwest.

Dave Bingaman says forecasters like him are using new media to spread their safety message.

Dave Bingaman: “If we talk about a particular weak layer and then we show that weak layer failing in a video clip on our site or on Facebook or You Tube or wherever else, it's a good resource for the people that use our services and a learning tool as well.”

The record for people killed by avalanches in any winter in the U-S in 36. That was just two years ago. Dave Bingaman says the number of fatalities could be much smaller, if people who use the backcountry know how to protect themselves.

I'm Doug Nadvornick in McCall, Idaho.



Payette Avalanche Center

Forest Service National Avalanche Center

2010 U.S. Avalanche Fatalties

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