Avalanche center fundraiser raises serious cash for snow safety

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

The Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center packed the Emerson ballroom once again this year, for its 15th annual PowderBlast, the center’s largest annual fundraiser.

“This year’s PowderBlast had great energy,” said GNFAC Director Doug Chabot in an email. “Having snow in the mountains always helps people get excited to celebrate the coming winter.”

The Bozeman-based Holler N’ Pine played rousing indie folk and bluegrass at the Emerson Cultural Center in Bozeman, while PowderBlast-goers sipped rocket-fueled beers from Lone Peak Brewery and threw down on raffle tickets and more than 100 silent auction items, including a pair of skis from Liberty, lift tickets, a steel fire pit with an MSU Bobcat theme, and outdoor gear galore.

The event this year raised in excess of $25,000, one of their best years.

Nearly half of the center’s funding – 45 percent – comes from sources outside the federal government, Chabot said, half from the Friends and half from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The GNFAC puts out daily avalanche advisories from late November through mid-April each year, its forecasts spanning from the Bridger Range to West Yellowstone and Cooke City.

It was closed during the recent government shutdown since it wasn’t putting out these daily forecasts yet. If a shutdown were to occur mid-winter, Chabot said, it would likely be deemed essential services and its three forecasters would continue putting out advisories.

The nonprofit Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center has supported the center for 22 years, providing financial backing and community partnerships for the PowderBlast and other fundraisers like the King of the Ridge; as well as for its 70 avalanche education classes the GNFAC hosts around the region, reaching more than 3,500 people.

The team at the avalanche center is ramping up as snow continues falling in the mountains of southwest Montana. And they still need your help.

With more than 6,000 square miles across five mountain ranges, the advisory area in the Gallatin National Forest is a lot to cover. Last season the forecasters put out 136 advisories, had 98 field days, dug 129 snowpits, made 58 YouTube videos and rode 1,200 miles on each of their snowmobiles.

Although they have regular observers in such far flung places at Cooke City, they still rely on observations from recreational backcountry users.

“We want as many obs in as many forms as we can get,” said forecaster Mark Stables, referring to weather, snow and avalanche observations that come in most often from backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers.

“Anything is great from anybody… A few notes about weather and skiing quality can tell us a lot, and then anything avalanche-related is helpful. It can be as detailed or as simple as you like – just a two sentence email can be great sometimes.”

Despite all the data they collect, there are always gaps and these observations from the public help paint the forecasters the picture by layering it atop other information they already have.

“We can confirm an idea we have or confirm the way we think conditions are, or it can tip us off that something is changing,” Staples said.

But what if you want to keep your secret backcountry stash, well… a secret?

Say so. “You can be as vague or as specific as you want,” Staples said. “Just give a general area or a mountain range, and tell us not to say where [your obs or photo] are from, and we’ll honor that.”

GNFAC’s new app and blog

The avalanche center is launching an app this year, available for both Apple and Android operating systems, as well as a blog, and an education program for new beacon users at Bridger Bowl.

“Our main goal is for folks to get our advisory, and we want to make that as easy as possible,” said forecaster Mark Staples about the app. “We want to get that information out in as many forms as we can.”

The forecasters are also active on Twitter and Facebook, and this year the website, mtavalanche.com, will have a mobile-specific interface.

The blog will be a home for non-advisory avalanche issues like discussion about new beacon technology, avalanche accident lessons from other states, and GNFAC avalanche articles. In addition, the Friends will be running beacon workshops at Bridger Bowl with the help of ski patrol to teach new users how to use them, and also to educate them (and their parents) on the dangers of skiing the sidecountry.

The GNFAC Advisory App will be available in Google Play by mid-November and in iTunes this December.