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Beacon parks around Western Montana help keep avalanche rescue skills sharp

Posted at 10:50 AM, Feb 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-26 12:50:02-05

MISSOULA — Statistics show that people cause 90% of avalanche accidents.

That’s why it’s key to know how to perform a rescue and use your gear before you go into the backcountry, especially with this winter's conditions in Western Montana.

“We finally got a significant amount of snow at the beginning of this year at the beginning of January that created a slab on top of those weak facets sitting at the ground. They can collapse and create an avalanche where that slab on top starts sliding down the hill, carry a person with it," Western Montana Avalanche Foundation forecaster Payton Schiff told MTN.

However, if the person buried by an avalanche is wearing a beacon, the odds of being found are much higher.

Beacon
A beacon (pictured) is one of the three essential pieces of winter backcountry travel gear. The list also includes a shovel and a probe.

"A beacon is a transceiver that sends and receives signals so in an avalanche accident you can pick up other signals for a rescue," Western Montana Avalanche Foundation educator Katie Matthews explained.

"It's a great time to come out and practice your rescue," added Schiff.

Montana Snowbowl ski area north of Missoula has a beacon park where you can practice with your beacon and probe. To get there, take the Grizzly Chair up, connect to the LaValle lift, and then ride down to the backcountry border on the right side. There, you’ll see signs for the beacon park.

“So at this beacon park, as well as the beacon park on Lolo Pass, there will be a box. You flip the switch to turn it on and then you can turn on up to eight beacons at a time to search for with just a little toggle,” detailed Schiff.

As Matthews reenacted a search scenario she said, “I want to make sure that as I'm moving through the terrain, I'm looking for a consistent signal. Once I have a number reading, I wanna make sure I'm following it.”

Snowbowl beacon park
If you head down the 'White Bark Pine' run towards point 6 and the TV towers you will see signs for the beacon park.

Follow the signal in an arcing pattern until the number gets very small.

While in the deeper snow, Matthews explained the close up style of searching, “It's called a fine search. This is where we're really pinpointing that lowest signal. So, when we get that lowest reading, we mark it, [and] practice a positive probe strike.”

A probe will strike into the snow and in a real avalanche, hopefully hit the buried person. You don’t dig the beacon out at the beacon parks, but in a real rescue, you would.

Data shows that the sooner you find the buried victim, the more likely they are to survive.

“The beacons find the signals, but your probe is finding the person," Matthews stated.

There are three other beacon parks in the Western Montana Avalanche Foundation’s forecast area. One is at Lolo Pass, another at Lost Trail, and the last — which isn’t active yet this season — is in Seeley Lake.

For more on the avalanche and weather conditions, visit https://missoulaavalanche.org.