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Experts warn of high avalanche danger during ice climbing festival

By Grace Ditzler, KTVM Reporter, gditzler@ktvm.com
Published On: Dec 11 2013 11:17:57 PM MST
BOZEMAN, Mont. -

Bad news for ice climbers participating in this weekend's ice festival in Hyalite Canyon, south of Bozeman.

Looks like they will be dealing with dangerous avalanche conditions.

The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center said they headed up to Hyalite Canyon this week ahead of the ice climbing festival to see what conditions were like.

What they found wasn't pretty; wind loaded slopes and ice slabs that broke easily because of weak snow facets underneath.

Avalanche Specialist Mark Staples said last week's negative degree temperatures are the source of the problem.

"We've gotten snow since then that's sitting on top of that very weak snow, and we've had winds and what that means is if you're out climbing or skiing or snowmobiling, you could trigger an avalanche," Staples explained.

And this is especially dangerous for ice climbers he said.

"The really scary part about ice climbing is the avalanche itself may not kill you but what it will do is sweep you off a cliff or over on ice climb and the trauma from that will be the problem," Staples said.

The 17th Annual Arc'teryx Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival kicked off Wednesday and runs through this weekend, so climbers will be flocking to Hyalite.

Three years ago a climber died in an avalanche during the same ice climbing festival, so we asked organizers if they're worried about this year's conditions.

"if there's any threat of an avalanche coming down on top of the ice climb," said Festival Competition Director Adam Knoff, "we just simply won't climb on those climbs."

We also asked festival participants if the conditions are changing their game plan.

"I will be bringing my avalanche gear with me and making sure people in my clinic are being safe," said festival participant Lincoln Gulley.

"You just have to be aware of your surroundings and make sure your understand what's going on and you can stay out there and have a safe and really fun day," said Derek Castonguay, who traveled from Portland, Ore. to participate.

Organizers said they're doing all they can to make sure climbers stay safe this weekend.

"Safety is our number one priority," Knoff said, "so we will do snow stability assessments above the climbing venues we use for our clinic areas, and if we deem those areas safe then we will go ahead and hold those clinics."

The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center rated the avalanche danger as "high" in the Hyalite Area on wind loaded slopes, and considerable on all others.

Experts recommend checking avalanche conditions before heading out.

The Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival runs through Sunday, Dec.15.