By Brett French THE BILLINGS GAZETTE
BILLINGS, Mont. — When Daniel Kristensen felt the back of the 11,000-pound snow groomer he was driving slide toward the edge of the old logging road he knew he was in trouble.
He’s not sure whether he saw the avalanche that struck the machine or he heard it, but the force of the snow hurtling off the mountainside easily tumbled the machine downhill, as if it had been struck by a freight train.
“It doesn’t really matter where you’re at if you’re in the wrong spot at the wrong time,” he told The Billings Gazette.
Kristensen is the president of the Gallatin Valley Snowmobile Association. One of the club’s tasks is grooming trails in the Bozeman area. It’s a chore Kristensen, a 30-year-old Belgrade resident, has been helping out with since he was 18.
Thursday night, Feb. 27, he was working his way up an old logging road in the Gallatin Canyon that climbs out of Storm Castle Creek up and over the divide to Swan Creek. It was about 8 p.m. and he was only about three to five miles from finishing when he encountered a large drift across the road.
Using the PistenBully snow groomer’s front blade, he began breaking up the drift where it had wind-loaded on the uphill side, pushing the snow off the road on the downhill edge. It was a route he had already driven once earlier this winter.
While grading the snow Kristensen accidentally triggered an avalanche on the slope above him. It broke 2-to-3 feet deep and 100 feet wide before crashing downhill on a 38-degree slope. In the 470 feet before reaching the road the snow picked up speed and grew larger before striking the groomer on the driver’s side.
“Luckily, this was one of the thinner spots” of snowpack on the mountain, said Doug Chabot of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, in a video investigation of the site posted online.
Buried at the bottom of the snowpack this year is a sugary layer of snow that can act like ball bearings if released, allowing the rest of the snow to slide downhill.
“If you get propagation on that layer, you will get an avalanche,” Chabot said.
Similar avalanches have been occurring around southwest Montana over the last two weeks because of this weak layer, either triggered by skiers or snowmobilers or releasing naturally under the weight of heavy snowfall.
When the avalanche struck the snow groomer Kristensen said the disorienting, rolling ride 165 feet downhill seemed like it lasted for 10 minutes, although it was probably closer to 10 seconds.
When the machine came to a stop against some pine trees it was right-side up and still running. Snow filled three-quarters of the cab because all of the windows had been broken out. Kristensen took about 30 seconds to assess the situation: he was alive, no limbs seemed broken and there was no blood gushing. Yet his mind was still in disbelief about what had happened.
If the avalanche had been bigger, if logs or rocks had been tossed into the cab as it rolled, or if his arm had been thrust out the window when the machine tumbled, the situation could have been much worse, he noted.
“I got so lucky,” Kristensen said. “It’s a blessing for me.”
Luckily, he wasn’t towing a trailer at the time, or that would have been an extra 8,000 pounds of metal thrashing around in the rollover, Kristensen added.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle.”
Once he was sure he was OK, Kristensen said he went into survival mode. After crawling out of the window he began searching the cab for his backpack, which contained survival gear, a satellite phone, as well as a SPOT beacon that could send out an SOS via satellite with his location. But all of his gear had been scattered.
Grabbing a scoop shovel off the machine he began digging and found his pack. Retrieving his cellphone he had one bar of service and sent out a text, but it wouldn’t go through. Finally he found the SPOT beacon and sent out an SOS, but was unsure if anyone would get the alert. He wasn’t expected back until 3 a.m.
Stepping away from the wrecked groomer he found a place where his cellphone got two bars and his texts suddenly went through. Crossing his fingers he called his father for help.
“It was just a waiting game from then on,” he said.
The snowmobile club keeps machines gassed up and ready to roll in case a groomer breaks down at night in the mountains.
“It’s not the first time I’ve been stranded in a groomer,” Kristensen said. “It’s no fun when it’s snowing and you’re in the dark.”
Struggling uphill through knee-deep snow, although strenuous, didn’t faze Kristensen because his adrenaline was flowing at full throttle.
“I was on a mission,” he said.
After reaching the road he found a spot where he could build a fire and hunker down until help arrived, which turned out to be only a couple of hours. Their arrival was a thrill.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a better feeling in my life, other than when my son was born,” he said.
Montana State Parks owns the $210,000 trail groomer, a 2018 PistenBully 100 with only about 2,000 hours on the engine. The snowmobile club had spent another 200 hours customizing the groomer with tool boxes and gas tanks. Kristensen is worried it may be wrecked beyond repair.
Seth McArthur, Montana Snowmobile Program manager, said he’s never heard of a trail groomer being caught in an avalanche. The state has 24 similar machines spread across the state.
In assessing how to get the machine out, it was first believed the club might have to wait until summer and drive in a wrecker to winch it out. Now the club thinks that maybe with some shoveling, and luck, they can drive it off the mountain this weekend to the same road below.
Calling the avalanche a “freak thing,” Kristensen said he’s unsure if he will drive a groomer in the future.
“My wife, I’m sure, doesn’t want me to continue,” he said.
He’s got a sore neck from the crash and scratched up his hands digging through the glass-filled snow in search of his gloves, but other than that he’s OK.
The club will now re-asses where they groom, since the route he was on doesn’t get a lot of travel.
A long-time snowmobiler, Kristensen said he’s never encountered an avalanche before. He avoids snowmobiling in the Cooke City area specifically because it’s known for so many avalanches. Avalanche danger in the northern Gallatin, Bridger and northern Madison mountains right now is rated “moderate.” Kristensen knows that’s no guarantee of safety, though.
“You think when you’re on a trail you’re safe,” he said. “But I’ve proved that’s not true.”