Mountain Humility – Explore Big Sky

Gain avalanche knowledge for safe backcountry travel

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

TOBACCO ROOT MOUNTAINS – The rhythmic sound of 10 sets of skins fills the air as we glide down a narrow track of packed snow. The sun is shining and the cool, fluffy powder is rising across the landscape, the towering peaks of the Tobacco Root Mountains welcome us into their embrace where we will eat, sleep and work for three days of immersive, distraction-free learning.

I am one of eight students and two guides from Big Sky Backcountry Guides who are on my way to ascend the 2.5 miles and 1600 elevation to the Bell Lake yurt to earn our Avalanche 1 certification.

A beautiful sunrise at Bell Lake Yurt, located near Bell Lake in the Tobacco Root Mountains. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

For those who recreate during the winter in the mountain ranges of southwestern Montana, avalanches are a very real threat. The 2020-21 winter season saw a record high fatality rate, with 36 avalanche deaths recorded in the United States. Two occurred in Montana, one locally in Beehive Basin. Backcountry winter sports are a game of risk versus reward – the lure of those mountains of fresh powder you gain, weighed against the risk of losing a friend or your own life.

A yurt license has existed in tobacco roots for about 40 years under various owners. BSBG owner and lead guide Drew Pogge has skied tobacco roots for years. He was a yurt boss on an assignment with Backcountry Magazine in 2002 when he jokingly asked the owners if they were looking to sell.

time and looking for a career change – was offered the sale. He saw an opportunity to bring the yurt to life and set to work updating its functionality so it could be used as a classroom and a comfortable place to enjoy the backcountry.

Guides Nicolas Westfall and Shannon Regan demonstrate excellent search beacon rescue. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

Now in its ninth season with Pogge and BSBG, the Bell Lake Yurt has been the hub through which many adventurers have gained the knowledge to stay educated and safe in Montana’s beautiful, treacherous mountain ranges.

“I’ve had an avalanche a few times in my skiing career,” Pogge said. He is a longtime member of the American Avalanche Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to avalanche safety education and awareness, and has taught avalanche courses for most of his life.

“Once I kind of understood and looked for an education elsewhere, it opened my eyes not only to how dangerous the backcountry was, but also how easy it was to manage once you got the good upbringing,” Pogge said.

As we approach the yurt, our guides stop and point to a ridge line that juts out from the prominent Long Mountain. The slope will be the site of our education and we will learn later that it is steep between 34 and 45 degrees; prime avalanche terrain. One of the guides, Shannon Regan, says there was one fatality here in 2019 due to a lingering weak layer which slipped, throwing two of the four men on a self-guided tour up the mountain, killing the one and seriously injuring the other.

“Mountains are good enough to crush us and remind us who’s in charge.”

Drew Pogge, Big Sky Backcountry Guides, owner and lead guide

Between one and two tonnes, according to our guides, is the average amount of snow you will need to shovel to recover a buried partner after an avalanche. The seriousness of this statistic weighs on our minds during the second day of our course. We stand along the side of the mountain that we have just skinned in snow pits that we have dug. The crest of each pit reaches even the top of the tallest student’s head and wind gusts peak at around 45 mph. My fingers and toes are completely numb.

Inside our pits, we carry out a series of snow stability tests: identification of weak layers by pushing the snow with fingers, hands and fists; the compression test, a series of methodical arm strokes atop a shovel; and the Extended Column Test, pulling a lone snow column towards you to see exactly where it breaks off. All of these tests collect data on the characteristics of the snow and ultimately help us determine whether or not the snowpack is safe to ski on.

Guides Nicolas Westfall and Shannon Regan demonstrate pit digging on day two of our Avalanche 1 course. We will then perform a series of snow stability tests to collect snowpack data and use it for decision making in our backcountry recreation plans. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

Although there are many courses that offer the same information, there is nothing like being in the mountains while doing it. The two mile long skin to our practice site raises the stakes and makes rescue drills that much more real.

“As soon as you step out of the yurt, you’re in avy territory,” Pogge said. “It’s nearly impossible to show people how to navigate rough terrain if you’re not in rough terrain. You can’t approximate it in a parking lot or a ski resort. It’s about practicing your way through it with guides who can explain the real questions you have as they arise.

While he doesn’t think we’ll ever reach the point where no one dies in the backcountry, the good news, says Pogge, is that even with the explosive growth of recreation since the 1990s, death statistics are remained relatively stable, which he calls “a huge win for education and avalanche safety.”

The North American Avalanche Danger Scale is a tool used by avalanche forecasters to communicate the potential of avalanches to cause damage or injury to backcountry travelers. This video is a good resource if you want to learn more about this scale. GRAPHIC COURTESY OF AVALANCHE.ORG

Later that night, we sit huddled around the yurt dinner table, hot cups of tea and coffee in our hands. Regan is in the kitchen preparing garlic bread to roast while the marinara sauce bubbles up in a large pot. After a long day on the mountain, the smell of fresh, homemade food is infectious.

Our second guide, Nicolas Westfall, leads the room with a whiteboard in hand, educating us on the human factor of avalanche risk. While snow and weather are all very important data points for mitigating risk in the backcountry, sometimes it’s the decisions we make as humans that determine whether an outing becomes deadly.

At the end of a long day of lessons, the students take the time to relax with a game of games in the yurt. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

Pogge says a recurring theme in every avalanche report he studies in the United States is that they are mostly completely predictable based on this human factor. It is our job to be informed and to use our own judgment to recognize unstable conditions before they cause death. According to Pogge, many avalanche fatalities involve very experienced people, and as we develop better, lighter and faster equipment, our risk only increases.

“Humility is one of the most important things that keeps people in the mountains for the long term,” Pogge said. “It’s something I definitely learned when the cocky 18-year-old moved to Bozeman thinking I’m going to be a badass in the mountains. The mountains are pretty good at crushing us and reminding us who is in command.

On our last day at the yurt, our class stood on a small ledge called Picnic Bench with Upper Peanut Butter Bowl above us. Frozen Bell Lake glistens below and the sun threatens to break through the otherwise overcast sky. We snack on sandwiches as we go from the climb to the descent. A long morning of planning – plotting our route, checking weather and avalanche forecasts, and packing the proper gear – preceded our arrival at Picnic Bench.

“Learning about avalanches is a lifelong endeavor,” Pogge said. “Every time I go out I learn something new about the snow or the mountains or about myself…really the idea is to improve every day. These are perishable skills.

We don our bindings and take turns meandering through the fresh, untouched powder to our lakeside meeting point. The lessons we’ve learned – meticulous advance planning and decision-making and the intricacies of snow science – are fresh in our minds as we take to the skies up the mountain, leave the yurt one last time and ski downhill. ‘at the Petosi campground where society waits once more.

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