A new sign has been posted on the edge of Cooke City in an attempt to alert snowmobilers and backcountry skiers to the area's avalanche conditions.
Like forest signs informing users about fire conditions, the sign posts the avalanche threat outside the southwestern Montana town, located just north of Yellowstone National Park.
“We really targeted Cooke City because in the snowmobile world it’s known as the deadliest place in America,” said Seth McArthur, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Snow Program manager.
Cooke City has attracted such attention because of its past history as an avalanche-prone region. In a 2017 study, Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center director Doug Chabot plotted snowmobiler avalanche fatalities and found Cooke City was not only the most dangerous place in Montana, but also the worst place in the nation over the previous 15 years.
At that time, the area had tallied 14 snowmobiler fatalities.
For snowmobilers seeking steep mountain riding with loads of snow, Cooke City is a white Nirvana.
The sign is part of an avalanche education and awareness effort that began in the winter of 2016-17 that included free weekend avalanche classes in Cooke City, said Pat Doyle, marketing and communications manager for Montana State Parks, in an email. The sign will be updated daily with the avalanche conditions. It also shows where avalanche fatalities have occurred in the area during the past 10 years.
Since the avalanche education courses started in Cooke City two winters ago, no snowmobiler has been killed in the area by an avalanche. In December 2016, however, there was a skier caught in an avalanche and killed on nearby Henderson Mountain. Last February a snowmobiler died in the area from injuries sustained in an wreck that didn't involve an avalanche.
The Cooke City classes are averaging about 400 students a year, McArthur said.
“A lot of people are coming from the Midwest and don’t have avalanche training,” he said. “The vast majority of them don’t even have the opportunity to take a class.”
Although Cooke City has dodged the bullet on avalanche fatalities recently, Montana has still had its share of deaths. One backcountry skier and a snowmobiler were killed in January. Last winter, avalanches killed four people in the state — two snowmobilers, one snowbiker and one skier.
This winter has seen 11 fatalities nationally — five snowmobilers and six skiers. Two of the snowmobilers killed were riding in Wyoming. The 10-year average for national deaths is 27.
McArthur said based on state trail passes sold, which are required to ride groomed trails, Montana has about 20,000 to 25,000 local snowmobilers with another 10,000 coming from out of state. That resident number has trended down, he said, while last year the number of nonresidents riding in Montana jumped to 11,000 because it was a good snow year.
The Cooke City sign is a partnership with Montana State Parks/Montana FWP, the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center and the Friends of the Avalanche Center.