BOZEMAN - Peter Carse doesn't like to see his work on the front page.
"Just so you know, we've been working real hard to stay out of the news," the snow safety director at Bridger Bowl ski area said late last week.
Carse is likely more sensitive to attention since three inbounds skiers at Western resorts have been killed in avalanches this winter. Skiers and snowboarders traditionally consider inbounds areas safe because of the actions that people like Carse and the ski patrol take to reduce avalanche risk.
"The three avalanche fatalities got a lot of press and people are thinking, 'Oh my god, it's not safe anymore,' " said Doug Chabot of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman, which issues daily snow reports for southwestern Montana. "It is safe. It's not widespread. It's not an ongoing problem. The resorts have taken care of it."
At Bridger, as well as at other resorts, there's a daily routine to make sure that avalanches don't surprise inbounds skiers.
The mountain bustles to life around 7 a.m. as the ski patrol rides a series of lifts to reach the top of the mountain.
The area is quiet except for the lifts' squeaky wheels. Stars twinkled in the black sky as the mountain's 8,400-foot ridge loomed above in white silence.
Once they've arrived on top, the 16 ski patrollers (more than 20 on weekends) travel out along the two-mile ridge's knife edge to the south and west. Steady, 25-30 mph westerly winds rise up from the Gallatin Valley, buffeting the patrollers as they make their way to the five avalanche control routes.
The bonus to this cold morning work is watching the sun rise over the Absaroka Mountains to the southeast, slowly lighting up the stunning 360-degree views of other ranges - the Crazies and Castles to the east, the Gallatin and Madison ranges to the south, and back west the Tobacco Roots and Elkhorns. At the center of this view, Bridger Bowl carves a fat pizza slice from the ridge to the base area 2,000 feet below. The ski area is perched between the 9,000-foot tops of Saddle Peak to the south and the rocky spires of Ross Peak to the north.
Walking the ridge
The patrollers travel in pairs for safety, often taking off their skis and slinging them over their shoulder to hike up steps kicked into the hard-packed snow.
Fumaroles - warm volcanic vents - produce armpit-deep holes in the snow to be avoided. Along the way, the patrollers kick the edges off of wind-loaded cornices and eyeball the snowpack for weak-looking areas.
"We used to blow up huge cornices, it looked cool," said Doug Richmond, assistant ski patrol director. "Now we do the daily dirty work, so it's not as spectacular."
Black-powder charges are built and detonated in spots where avalanches look imminent and need a little coaxing. Richmond tossed a charge onto a hangfire - an area that didn't release after a previous detonation - above Alpine Lift on Friday. The charges are powerful enough to blow a hole through half-inch steel. The fuses are typically 150 seconds long, giving the patrollers plenty of time to get to safety.
To place them more precisely, the patrollers will sometimes use a line to lower the charge into position. They also use wires suspended above narrow chutes and gullies to slide the charge down into areas too dangerous to reach on foot.
Bridger also has a 75 mm howitzer that can fire rounds into its South Bowl. The rounds are surplus from the Korean War and no longer produced. With only 19 rounds left, the ski hill is likely to finish off its supply and retire its gun this year.
Little has changed in the morning avalanche routine for ski patrollers over the past 30 years, according to Fay Johnson, director of Bridger's ski patrol. What has changed is Bozeman-area skiers' and snowboarders' increasing appetite for untracked powder, extreme lines and backcountry experiences.
"There's been such an increase in skier traffic on the ridge," she said. "It has affected the way we do our job."
That's meant that the ski patrol has taken a more prominent role in education and avalanche awareness for the skiing and snowboarding public. This year, the ski area offered avalanche transceivers at a discount to all season pass buyers and sold about 500. And there are more signs warning people about the dangers of skiing out of bounds.
Education was stepped up a notch this year as the resort opened a lift that accesses expert-only terrain, the new Schlasman's Lift. The 311 acres of narrow chutes and wide bowls to the south of the resort's old boundary is limited to skiers and snowboarders with avalanche transceivers. A partner and shovel are strongly recommended.
"It's more of a backcountry type of experience and we want people to be adequately prepared," said Doug Wales, Bridger's marketing manager. "We're just making people aware of the terrain they're going into."
Bridger also implemented a more relaxed out-of-bounds access policy this year for surrounding national forest land, terrain not subject to the patrol's avalanche reduction efforts.
"We're excited about it," said Chabot, of the avalanche center, himself a backcountry skier. "But if you head out of bounds, you need to be hyper aware that it is a whole different world out there. It's a backcountry situation that you have to treat with respect. There's a huge difference. Just a few feet over that rope line is a different world."
Although this winter has been unusual for its three avalanche deaths at ski resorts in Wyoming, Utah and California, skiing at resorts is still safe, Chabot said.
Considering the tens of thousands of people who ski every year, avalanche deaths are rare, he added. It's also unusual that the instability of the snowpack is widespread across the West, he said.
"We're all kind of facing a similar problem," he said. "We got early-season snow, it sat there, then we got cold temperatures. That turned the snow into big sugary grains of snow."
Those sugary grains can act like ball bearings, especially as heavier snow builds up on top of that weak layer. In spots, the weak layer has strengthened, Chabot said, but not uniformly, so that one slope may be strong while an adjacent one is ready to slide.
"At the ski areas, they use explosives to try and control all of that, the deep instability problem," Chabot said. "They do a phenomenal job of keeping these areas safe."
But in the backcountry, that's not the case, as evidenced on Saturday when three snowmobilers were killed in separate avalanches across southwestern Montana.
"It's tricky, it's not obvious," Chabot said. "It's a low-frequency, high-consequence situation. Because when there is a slide, it's taking the full season's snowpack."
Contact Brett French at email@example.com or at 657-1387.