Annual fundraiser for avalanche center Oct. 23

By Tyler Allen EBS Senior Editor

BOZEMAN – Whether or not early snows drape the region’s high peaks in late October, one annual event forecasts the impending winter. The Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center’s Powder Blast fundraiser signals to snow enthusiasts that its time to sharpen their boards and tune up their sleds.

Bozeman’s Emerson Cultural Center will host the 17th annual event on Oct. 23 with a silent auction, raffle, catered dinner, and draft beer from Big Sky’s Lone Peak Brewery and Livingston’s Katabatic Brewery.

New to the fold this year is music by local icon DJ Missy O’Malley, as well as Big Sky’s Grizzly Outfitters Ski and Backcountry Sports taking over as title sponsor from Montana Import Group.

The Powder Blast is the Friends of the GNFAC’s biggest fundraiser of the year. A nonprofit formed in 1992, the Friends raises money for avalanche education, weather stations and beacon parks, among other needs identified by the center. This year’s event also signals a changing of the guard at GNFAC.

One of the region’s three avalanche forecasters, Mark Staples, was hired in August as the new director of the Utah Avalanche Center after eight years serving southwest Montana.

“Mark moved on with a huge promotion to be the director of [the UAC],” said GNFAC Director Doug Chabot. “It’s a large avalanche center, [and] very well known and respected … Mark is very qualified for it.”

Alex Marienthal will replace Staples this winter as a forecasting intern before the Forest Service in March opens up hiring for the position on a permanent basis. With an internship jointly funded by the Friends and the USFS, Marienthal will join Chabot and Eric Knoff as they assess the snowpack this winter and write daily forecasts, among other duties.

Marienthal has a master’s in snow science from Montana State University, was on the Bridger Bowl Ski Patrol snow safety team, and is the avalanche education coordinator for the Friends. “He’s very qualified to have that position,” Chabot said.

The three snow safety professionals cover a large forecasting region, from the southern Madison Range near Hebgen Lake, north to the Gallatin and Bridger ranges, and east to the mountains around Cooke City. This season, the forecasters will encourage backcountry users to increase the number of observations they submit to the center.

“We need more obs,” Chabot said, referencing the shorthand term for snowpack observations. “Our forecast area is so big that we need help from the recreating public … to let us know what they saw. We don’t need technical observations, what we need are basic snow and weather obs.”

Information valuable to the center include snowfall amounts, wind effects, and if observers see any avalanches while in the backcountry. The results of stability tests and snow-pit evaluations are welcome but not necessary, Chabot said.

This winter follows a 2014-2015 season of low snowfall in the Western mountains, which resulted in reduced avalanche fatalities – there were 11 U.S. deaths last season compared to an average of 30, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website.

The GNFAC advisory area saw two fatalities last year. The first was a buried snowmobiler south of Cooke City on Nov. 26. The second occurred on April 11, when a skier died of trauma after being swept over cliffs by a small slide on Beehive Peak north of Big Sky.

“Small slides can be deadly when you’re in serious terrain or near terrain traps,” Chabot said. “Even during times of low snow we still have to be vigilant with our assessment. Anytime there’s snow on the ground there’s avalanche potential.”

Regardless if the first big snowstorm hits southwest Montana before Oct. 23, the Powder Blast is an opportunity to support avalanche safety all winter.

The 17th annual Powder Blast starts at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 23 in the Emerson’s Crawford Ballroom. Visit mtavalanche.com for tickets or more information.