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Avalanche safety a top priority after big temp swings in Montana

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Posted at 8:30 PM, Dec 27, 2022

BILLINGS — With winter now upon us and in some places around the state, and near 100-degree temperature swings after last week’s record-setting cold, the risk of avalanches has increased. The right equipment when on the mountain can mean the difference between life and death.

Brett Sheeley and Allen Wilson both work at Elevated Powersports in Billings and are familiar with the thrill of sledding around the mountain as well as the risks it brings as the mountains around Cooke City and West Yellowstone are experiencing avalanche conditions after receiving new snow and strong winds.

They spoke about how the proper equipment is crucial to a safe trip.

"With the temperature swing and the weather changing, the wet, heavy snow increases the risk because there’s a bunch of wet and heavy snow on top of a bunch of weak layers, some of which are six feet deep. You got to look out for them (avalanches) every time you go out. The weather changes constantly, whether it's wind, heat, wet snow, light snow, anything. You’re always constantly looking for avalanches," said Sheeley.

One of the most important pieces of equipment is an avalanche backpack airbag, which helps keep the rider or any outdoor recreationist above the snow. While that can work, they mention there’s no guarantee you won’t be buried and that’s why an avalanche beacon tops their list of items they never leave home without.

"You always keep the beacon on you, kind of centralized on your body. So basically, if you get buried, it sends out a signal. So your riding group can turn their transceiver on to search and, hopefully, they can find you and get you out," added Sheeley.

And time is of the essence.

The American Avalanche Association says the chances of surviving an avalanche are 92% if you’re rescued within 15 minutes. But it drops to 37% after 35 minutes. The transmitter triangulates a location and gives rescuers an area to start searching to drastically increase those odds.

But nothing beats being aware of the conditions and staying vigilant on the mountain.

"Sometimes the urge to go ride the good snow outweighs common sense and I think that’s when a lot of people get themselves in trouble," said Wilson.

And it's something they aim to ensure all of their customers are aware of.

"We go over the avalanche stuff, it's huge. We have to make sure they’re aware of the dangers up there and prepared for it, the best we can do from here... You always have to be aware of your surroundings. What the snow has been doing that day and then also, what it’s been doing. So, really pay attention to your surroundings and not only the terrain but know where other people are as well," added Wilson.