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Snowmobilers turned snow geeks

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By Emily Stifler Managing Editor

BIG SKY – A group of snowmobile guides in Southwest Montana this winter raised the bar for their profession.

In January, 18 of them took the first-ever level 2 avalanche class in the U.S. that was designed specifically for snowmobilers. The course, based in Big Sky, was taught by the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. The participants were all from Canyon Adventures, Big Sky Search and Rescue and Ace Powder Guides.

Montana leads the nation in snowmobiler fatalities in the last decade, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Nationwide, more snowmobilers have been killed in avalanches during that same time period than any other user group.

“Snowmobilers look at avalanche conditions differently than backcountry skiers or snowboarders, because they don’t stay on just one slope or aspect for their tour,” said Doug Chabot, director of the GNFAC and one of three instructors for the class.

Because of this, the class focused on digging quick snow pits where the guides could glean the information needed to move to another spot. The instructors, led by former GNFAC forecaster Scott Schmidt, taught how to best dig and understand these pits, and how to record the results.

“It’s been a great year for it,” said Jeff Watt, owner of Ace Powder Guides. “With all the natural and human triggered avalanches happening, it’s an awesome year to dig a bunch of pits and learn all the snow science behind it.”

With these skills, the guides can then to track changes in the snow, and communicate with other professionals around the region to better understand what’s going on in the backcountry snowpack.

The group also learned more about leadership in avalanche terrain, specifically, how to move groups of people around safely, and how to respond to a rescue scenario.

“Snowmobilers approach a slope from the bottom, versus from the top, like a skier or snowboarder,” Chabot said, which tends to make rescues different. Skiers will descend to the last seen point and start a beacon search there while snowmobilers will start a search at the toe of the debris.

The class gave Watt and his guides more confidence in their guiding, and allowed them to bring clients onto more terrain.

“In the past we didn’t guide hills. Now we feel more confident explaining why we’re not allowed to climb hills, or saying, ‘OK, that hill is looking really good,’ and we know why.”

Ed Hake from Canyon Adventures and Big Sky Search and Rescue said much of the information was review for him and his guides, but he still valued the class.

“It’s always worth your time to go out and practice, study and learn more about pits,” Hake said. “Some of the things Scott taught in the classroom helped us make more sense of what we already knew.”

The avalanche center got something out of it, too.

After the course, many guides have started submitting snowpack and avalanche observations that are “head and shoulders above what they were before,” Chabot said. “They’re able to communicate and talk about avalanches at a much more professional level.”

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