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Avalanche safety tips for backcountry exploration

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Posted at 3:50 PM, Jan 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-03 09:24:41-05

An avalanche killed one snowmobiler just north of Cooke City on December 31. Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center and Roundhouse Sports share what happened and safety tips for exploring the backcountry.

“The essential thing you need to start off with in any condition is a transceiver,” says Roundhouse Sports owner, Larry Merkel.

The snowmobiler was carried 600 vertical feet and was buried under five feet of snow.

"Two young men were high marking and playing on a peak called Crown Butte outside of Cooke City and one of them triggered a slide," says the Director of the Avalanche Center, Doug Chabot. "He was carried down and buried. Now he had a lot of rescue gear. He had an airbag, he had a probe, and he had a shovel, but he was missing an avalanche beacon."

Chabot says having the right gear is imperative when exploring the backcountry.

“You have about an 80% chance of survival if you're dug up in 10 minutes," says Chabot. "The only way you're gonna get dug up in 10 minutes is either you have something sticking out of the snow so they can find you, or your partner is really good with an avalanche transceiver. And you're also wearing one."

Chabot says the only other way for your partner or Search and Rescue to find you is a probe pole or an avalanche dog. You can test your transceiver, also called a beacon, at most trailheads.

"Beacon checkers are really cool, they're at most trailheads. As you go by the sign there's a little light that blinks that says yes, your beacon is working correctly,” says Chabot.

Besides a beacon, the owner of Roundhouse Sports, Larry Merkel, says that a shovel and a probe are essential pieces of equipment one should bring. He also believes checking avalanche reports before going out is very important.

“If you're going into the backcountry, before you go, check the avalanche reports and get an idea of what the snow conditions are like at the current time and what they've been a few days prior to that,” says Merkel.