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'Our mission is to save lives': Avalanche forecasters take risks to keep others safe in the backcountry

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Posted at 10:03 AM, Feb 25, 2023

This is Part One of a two-part series from MTN's Matt Elwell, exploring the work of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.

BOZEMAN — The avalanche danger in southwest Montana is real. Hundreds of people come out to the backcountry just to play in the snow. That’s what makes the work of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center so important to the people of southwest Montana.

“We save lives—that’s the whole goal of what the Avalanche Center does. Our mission is to save lives,” said Doug Chabot.

Chabot is the director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman, Montana. He has nearly 24 years of avalanche forecasting experience in a region that stretches from south of West Yellowstone to the Bridger range, all the way to Cooke City, Montana. And they get out there to where people want to play—in any condition.

“It’s a great job, don’t get me wrong,” Chabot said, “but like any job, you get out there when it’s great and we are also out there when it’s horrible. In the middle of storms when conditions aren’t good, when avalanche danger is higher, and we have to be really careful.”

It may not seem like the science behind avalanches changes much, but new research changes how forecasters approach the slopes.

“The science actually has changed a lot. And our understanding of the snow has changed a lot over the last 20 years. We have new tests that we are doing on the snowpack that help us understand how and why avalanches happen,” said Chabot.

From keeping up with the science, to getting out in the field, to getting their avalanche forecasts out daily, there is one thing that keeps the avalanche guys going.

“It’s pretty cool when it’s high avalanche danger and stuff’s going off. But what really strikes fear and I lose sleep is when I think about people dying. Certainly, areas where there are a lot of people out where we could get a lot of people caught—Saddle Peak would be an example—especially if we are dealing with kids, that’s definitely a lose sleep kind of situation,” Chabot said.

There is a dark side to what these guys do, which is why they go out in the field and test avalanche conditions. We’ll take a closer look at their work in Part Two.