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Growing Big Sky snow safety

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By Maria Wyllie
Explore Big Sky Staff Writer

You are responsible for your own safety.

This is the most valuable lesson Tom Thorn, an avalanche forecaster with Big Sky Ski Patrol and director of the avalanche dog program, has learned in his 17 years of working at the resort.

Originally from Rockland County, New York, Thorn first heard about Big Sky the year the Lone Peak Tram was installed in 1996. His curiosity grew as he watched weather reports that season, a year of particularly heavy snowfall. That, combined with a lack of people and what looked to be unmatched terrain, convinced him he should see the area for himself.

So a year later in the spring of 1997, Thorn, 23 at the time, passed through Big Sky on his way to Blue River, British Columbia, where he was taking an Association of Canadian Mountain Guides ski-guiding course.

He returned to Big Sky that fall with his girlfriend Jessica, now his wife, in a grey Toyota pickup truck they called home, and for six months they parked in various places in the Gallatin National Forest – up Squaw, Swan and Moose creeks.

“Ironically, I ended up buying a piece of property and building a house right near there in Karst seven years later, in 2004,” Thorn said.

Getting a job on the ski hill, where he would be skiing every day, seemed like a no-brainer. Thorn had been a ski patroller at Jay Peak, Vermont and had taken some avalanche classes while finishing college at SUNY Plattsburg in New York. These skills made him an easy hire in the winter of 1997/1998, a season of high turnover due to a patroller fatality the previous year.

Big Sky’s snow safety program was relatively new, and although Thorn started off as a line patroller, he soon became a blaster in the avalanche control program. Since then, he’s spent most of his time working in the snow safety department as an avalanche technician and forecaster.

Being on the mountain so many days a year, he says, allows him to have a better understanding of the snowpack. “If I’m going to ski, I’m going to have to evaluate stability,” he said. “So whether I’m at work or in the backcountry, I’m constantly assessing hazards.”

While Thorn takes his job seriously, he’s also able to let loose.

“That’s the juxtaposition of Tom,” said David Bird, one of Thorn’s backcountry ski partners and oldest friends in Big Sky. “He’s real serious, and knows a lot about this [snow] science… yet you get him away from it and he’s like a college kid.”

But in his spare time Thorn doesn’t just goof around. He is a dedicated backcountry skier and teaches community avalanche classes through the Big Sky Avalanche Foundation for Education, a “mom-and-pop” organization he founded in 2007.

Certified as an instructor through the American Avalanche Association, Thorn offers Level I and II avalanche courses through BSAFE, a youth avalanche class, and plans to offer Level III in the future, as well.

“When this place used to be small and you used to know everyone…people [would ask] me about conditions in the backcountry, [and] I got the idea that there was a need for public education,” Thorn said. “I’ve done a number of rescues, and I thought maybe if we did some more education, we’d do less rescues.”

In his classes Thorn teaches beacon search techniques; how to recognize signs of instability and evaluate hazards; how to interpret, record and share snow pit data; backcountry group dynamics; and safe route-finding and backcountry travel skills.

In his popular Level I course, students gain basic tools for recreational backcountry use; however, Thorn warns them that Level I graduates are often some of the most dangerous backcountry users.

“There is no substitute for experience,” he said, adding that while the backcountry snowpack is dangerous right now, it is good his students, because it allows them to see what a weak snowpack looks like.

“Recent snow storms combined with high winds have now deposited a thick, dense wind slab on top of this faceted layer, and it has been extremely active of late,” Thorn said of the backcountry snowpack in and around Big Sky on Feb. 18. “It’s a good time to learn about why snow avalanches.”

Thorn also reiterates the importance of making group decisions in the backcountry, and that there’s a fine line between having fun and getting into a potentially fatal situation. “Who you surround yourself with in the backcountry could mean the difference between whether or not you come out of an avalanche alive,” he said.

Thorn is helping create a larger understanding of snow and avalanches among members of the skiing and snowboarding public in Big Sky, and that interaction with students is part of what keeps him going.

“It provides me with a great learning experience myself,” he said. “Someone always has something different to offer.”

To sign up, or learn more information about Tom’s avalanche courses, email him at

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