Avalanche center teaches preparedness, rescue techniques for growing crowd of back-country enthusiasts
Winter is coming, which means Inland Northwest residents will be heading out to the backcountry with their skis, snowboards and snowmobiles in search of solitude and deep powder.
“We’re seeing a lot more backcountry users,” said Jeff Thompson, the new director of the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center in Sandpoint. “The new gear has allowed people to go deeper into the backcountry.”
That also means more people are recreating in avalanche country. Thompson, who recently moved to Sandpoint from Colorado with Annie, his avalanche rescue dog, sat down with the S-R this week to talk about the center’s work.
Q: When did the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center get started?
A: In the early 1990s. It’s been a fairly grassroots effort. This is the first time they’ve hired a full-time director. Kevin Davis, a Forest Service hydrologist in Sandpoint, was running the center in the winter, but it got big enough that they needed a little more help. Kevin will still be involved.
Q: What mountain areas are covered by the forecasts?
A: We cover 2.7 million acres in the Selkirks, Cabinets, Purcells and the Coeur d’Alene/St. Joe Divide. We do a little bit in Washington with Mount Spokane. The Selkirk forecast is applicable to conditions in Northeast Washington.
Q: How is the center funded?
A: The Forest Service provides partial funding. Groups such as The Friends of the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center and other partners also contribute. The annual budget is around $60,000.
Q: What is the center’s mission?
A: Educating the public. We put out a weekly avalanche forecast on our website. We also give people the skills so they can assess the situation in the backcountry. We talk about the red flags. Has it snowed 2 inches in the last hour? Has the wind kicked up? Was it a high hazard day to start with?
Q: What do you learn in a basic, three-hour avalanche awareness course?
A: We teach people how to identify avalanche terrain. Thirty degrees (incline) is the tipping point for avalanches. Some folks are looking to avoid it altogether. Others will be looking for potential avalanche terrain, because it provides some of the best skiing, best boarding out there. We want them to do it safely. We talk about snow types and weather. We teach rescue techniques and introduce rescue gear.
Q: What are the four minimum essentials for rescue gear?
Avalanche beacon, which transmits a signal that can be detected by a partner. (They retail for about $175 to $300.)Shovel.Probe for finding things under the snow.Knowledge of how to use this stuff.
Of course, if you don’t have a partner, no one will be there to dig you out.
Q: What other safety gear is available?
A: An Avalung prevents an ice mask from forming on your face when you exhale warm air. It buys you a little bit of time under the snow.
There are airbags that inflate when you pull on the ripcord. The bigger you are in an avalanche, the more likely you are to float to the surface.
Q: There were 29 avalanche fatalities in the U.S. last winter. Which demographic is at the highest risk?
A: When you look at the stats of who is getting caught, buried and killed, it’s males ages 20 to 25, who are skiers. But there’s a big increase in who’s getting out into the backcountry.
I just did avalanche training in Spokane for 100 women with an organization called SheJumps. There’s also an increase in snowmobiling. With the new snowmobiles, people can rip off 30 to 40 miles in a day pretty easily. A lot of people can do that. Kids can do that.
Q: What advice would you give to young adults skiing, boarding and snowmobiling in the backcountry?
A: Get yourself educated. It starts with an awareness course and progresses to Level 1 and Level 2 courses, which provide hands-on training in the field.
We have the Doug Abromeit Avalanche scholarship. We try to send one person to Level 1 training each year. There’s information about the scholarship on our website.
Q: What’s your previous work history?
A: In Colorado, I worked half of the year at Beaver Creek Ski Resort. I was the snow safety supervisor. I also worked on the White River National Forest in trails and wilderness; I taught avalanche classes for Colorado Mountain College; and I trained and certified avalanche rescue dogs.
Q: Tell me about your avalanche rescue dog.
A. Annie’s a 2-year-old yellow lab. She hasn’t done any actual rescues yet, but my previous dog, Dixie, worked in avalanche rescue for 11 years.
If someone is buried under the snow and they don’t have a beacon, really the fastest way to find them is with the nose of an avalanche rescue dog. It’s amazing to watch.
Q: Is there a particular dog breed that works well for avalanche rescue?
A: You want a breed that likes to find things. That’s why retrievers work so well. Labs were originally bred in Newfoundland to get the fish that fell off the boats at the dock. The cold doesn’t bother them as much as other breeds. They have an oily finish to their coat that allows them to shed moisture almost like a Gore-Tex jacket.
Q: Have you ever been in an avalanche?
Multiple times, though I’ve never been fully buried. A ski patroller’s job is to knock down avalanches so the terrain is safe for the public. So, most experienced patrollers have some experience with avalanches. We’re always very careful.
The era of cowboy ski patrolling is over.
This interview was condensed for brevity.