We give the Mountain pulpit to Joe DiFulgentis, Director of the Five Valleys Backcountry Ski Patrol.
A few years ago, a friend and I set out to ski Mount Blackmore, a popular peak with backcountry skiers near Bozeman, Montana. We dug a snow pit on an upper slope to evaluate stability and found a foot of new snow resting atop weak, faceted snow. We cut our tour short, and safely skied blower powder in low-angle trees. The next day, two skiers ventured onto the steeper terrain that we’d avoided. The first skied the line safely. But the second triggered an avalanche that buried him under three feet of snow.
The accident edified what I already knew. It’s vital to collect pertinent snow data and use it to make smart decisions. But as more people venture into the backcountry, more mistakes will happen. And local rescue agencies will feel the strain.
To help, in 2008, a group of ski patrollers in Missoula, Montana formed the Five Valleys Backcountry Ski Patrol. Affiliated with the National Ski Patrol, our volunteers include mountain guides, medical professionals, and ski patrollers throughout West Central Montana. When backcountry skiers and snowboarders are in need—whether they’re in rolling hills close to town, outside the boundaries of our local ski area, or on high peaks—we answer the call.
Mountain towns have long operated this way. Wherever whitewater kayaking and rock climbing are popular, swiftwater and high-angle rescue volunteer groups supplement local authorities. In our case, the FVBSP assists search and rescue teams in Missoula and Seeley Lake. We’ve performed wilderness rescues, and we responded to the fatal 2014 Mount Jumbo avalanche that hit Missoula. This winter, our patrols will collect snow data for the West Central Montana Avalanche Center, expanding the information available to forecasters. Future plans include fundraising for battery caches and beacon check stations at high-traffic trailheads.
That day on Mount Blackmore, the snowpack gave us many signs to turn around. Everyone who heads into the backcountry must learn to recognize and heed those signals. Because when things go wrong, rescue is often far away. But that’s why our organization exists: to help our backcountry kin when they need it most.