By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – Following the 2021-22 winter season that matched the national record for avalanche deaths in the U.S., community partners on Jan. 15 unveiled a newly established beacon park in Big Sky to provide local education and increase avalanche awareness and safety.
Funded by Big Sky-based contractor Cornerstone Management Services, the beacon park creates an opportunity for backcountry users to search for buried transceivers to hone their beacon skills so if the time comes to perform a rescue, they’re proficient with their gear. The park, currently made up of four buried transceivers, is located at the softball fields at the Big Sky Community Park and is free and open to the public.
Avalanche transceivers, or beacons, are worn during travel through the backcountry and are used to locate victims who are buried by avalanches. The survival rate for victims buried beneath an avalanche drops significantly after 15 minutes. As a partner performing a rescue, time is of the essence, and a life is at stake. Executing each component of a rescue efficiently is critical, beginning with the beacon search.
“In stressful situations, we as humans perform at the level of our training,” said Matt Zia with Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. “If we train to a really high level then we’re going to be ready to perform in those stressful situations of an avalanche rescue.”
Currently the only beacon park in Big Sky is located at the base of the Challenger lift at Big Sky Resort, which requires a lift ticket and the ability to ski a blue run to access. According to Andy Dreisbach, owner of CMS and a volunteer with Gallatin County Sheriff Search and Rescue Big Sky Section, broader access was a key consideration for the new beacon park. When choosing a location, Dreisbach said the team at CMS ruled out popular backcountry areas and instead opted for the community park which is “immediately centralized for everybody,” according to Dreisbach.
The Big Sky Community Organization, which is lending the land for the park, hosted the park’s opening day on Jan. 15, which was attended by approximately 10 people and included demonstrations by GNFAC. BSCO Youth Program Manager Richard Sandza said the main goal of the event was to connect people to their resources and open the park to the community.
The concept for the park originated in 2020 when then Lone Peak High School senior Laney Smith proposed the park to community funding partners. Since then, CMS has taken the seed planted by Smith and brought the $12,000 project to fruition.
Having performed many rescues as a search and rescue volunteer, Dreisbach said general backcountry knowledge is important, but practice is the tandem component, and an active avalanche search is “not really the time to practice.”
The other piece of this, according to Dreisbach, is understanding the difference between owning gear and knowing how to use it, a distinction many avalanche safety instructors open introductory courses with.
“Ownership does not warrant knowledge, if you will,” Dreisbach said. “Practice and purposeful practice give you the basis for that knowledge.”
Joseph T. O’Connor and Gabrielle Gasser contributed reporting to this story.