Salute to Service: Flathead Avalanche Center - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

Salute to Service: Flathead Avalanche Center

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WHITEFISH - This edition of Salute to Service features the folks at the Flathead Avalanche Center.

Chris Bilbrey works out of Hungry Horse as an avalanche specialist for the Center. His typical workday consists of waking up at 4 a.m. to evaluate anywhere from 12 to 15 weather station’s snowpack data across the Whitefish, Swan, Glacier and Flathead mountain ranges.

He also looks at data from other forecasters or the public to create a forecast for the day. 

“So, it’s sort of a hodgepodge of information gathering of weather, observations and snow pack data to compile a general broad-based avalanche hazard for our four mountain ranges within our advisory area,” said Bilbrey.

Once the forecast is done, they head into the backcountry. Bilbrey says days can be as short as four hours or as long as 15 hours -- depending on the drive and access to the area.

They climb to a spot they feel represents the majority of the range. Once they are there, they perform a number of tests to determine the stability of the snowpack. 

“Based on the advisory and the problems that we deem are relevant for any given day, that helps us formulate -- sort of like a research question that we might choose to answer while out in in the field,” said Bilbrey.

The most recent problem in the Whitefish Range has been wind slabs that formed from recent strong northeast winds that have settled feet of snow on top of a rain crust from early February.

Bilbrey first dug a pit where you perform the snow tests, looking for different layers in the snowpack, "we’ve identified kind of our layer of concern and have a really nice excavated pit, we’re ready to do a stability test."

The test that Bilbrey showed MTN News was called extended column test where the skier uses a saw to cut a block in the snowpack. Then they place a shovel on the snow patting it down to test the strength of the snow. 

“We didn’t get a failure of the entire column the during our test which consisted of 10 taps from the wrist, 10 taps from the elbow and 10 from the shoulder,” said Bilbrey.

Bilbrey and the rest of the team do a number of other tests but from the one he showed us, it’s looking good for skiers -- saying "we just have a bunch of really light great, good snow."

He says that at the end of the day, the Flathead Avalanche Center just has one goal in mind.

“Prevent the loss of life, limb and property from human and naturally occurring avalanches through public information sharing as well as education to the community," Bilbrey said.

Click here for the latest advisory from the Flathead Avalanche Center. 

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