Avalanche experts warn new snow in the Bridger Mountains, north of Bozeman, created dangerous conditions for people recreating in the backcountry.
Unstable conditions created by subzero temperatures in the past 10 days have combined with a heavy load of new snow. That has pushed the avalanche danger to high on all slopes steeper than 35 degrees. That means large slides are possible in many areas and natural avalanches could be triggered without warning.
When conditions like these exist, experts say people should say out of avalanche-prone areas.
The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center says a skier was lucky to make it out unharmed after being caught in a large slide in the Saddle Peak area of the Bridger Mountains Wednesday. Saddle Peak is just south of the boundary of Bridger Bowl Ski Area.
GNFAC avalanche specialists say the avalanche broke near the ground. The skier was able to fight and grab a tree, which helped momentarily, but the avalanche pulled him away. He kept fighting and dug into the bed surface and was able to walk away without being buried. Experts say it could have been much worse.
"It's a lot like a real bad car wreck. You might be able to do something in the first second, but really you're out of control once the car starts flipping and tumbling. You just hope you can walk away in the end, but it's really a coin toss whether or not you make it," explains Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Specialist Mark Staples.
While places like Saddle Peak may be easy to access, we're told you take on a whole other level of responsibility when you leave Bridger Bowl's boundaries.
"It's a death zone if someone were to start an avalanche and that kind of volume of snow came over those cliffs, you wouldn't want to be underneath there," says Bridger Bowl Ski Patrol Director Doug Richmond.
Richmond is talking about Saddle Peak. The dangerous piece of backcountry is part of the reason why he says Bridger Bowl has its boundary where it does.
They're taking into account factors like the size of the slide path, the distance between safe zones skiers can ski to, the number of skiers jumping into starting zones above skiers below, and the large rock band that goes along the middle of the slide path.
"The wind out of the west loads a lot of snow over onto this east side, so immediately if you leave the ski area, you're in the same kind of steep terrain. It just hasn't had the daily approach of trying to knock back that windload, the rapid windloading that happens along the top," says Richmond.
While Richmond says the snow might look the same, he says it's a big change and a big risk.
"The size of some of these avalanches are big enough that it's a fatal ride, it has the potential to be a fatal ride, whether there's someone there to rescue you or not," explains Richmond.
Although backcountry may only be several lift rides away, Richmond says you're on your own as soon as you leave the ski area boundary. You assume the added responsibility of maneuvering higher avalanche danger and other hazards, like skiers around you.
Safe travel in high hazard avalanche terrain means going one at a time. Richmond says that can be tough outside the south boundary near Saddle Peak.
"If the people above you start an avalanche then you're in the way and you pay the price," Richmond says.
He says it's much more dangerous terrain for ski patrol, too.
"If we have an in-bounds situation, we have a very high awareness of what's going on, what's happening with the snowpack inside the boundaries," explains Richmond.
In the event a backcountry rescue is necessary, a team of Gallatin County Search and Rescue volunteers would come to your aid.
"Many of us are part of the search and rescue, but the people doing the rescue out there are representing Gallatin County Search and Rescue, not Bridger Bowl," says Richmond.
Jason Jarrett is with Gallatin County Search and Rescue. They're the busiest Search and Rescue group in the state and, likely, the region. They respond to 100 calls a year.
"We're not going to be able to help you if you can't help yourself," says Jarrett.
Jarrett says they support outdoor recreation, but with that comes responsibility. He says their team is made up of world-class volunteers, ready to help.
"We don't go into places that we can't operate in safely but we bring a lot of skill and a lot of tools to those places that makes it safe for us to operate and if you have a shot at surviving a bad event, we'll give it to you," says Jarrett.
He says Gallatin County taxes itself for search and rescue services.
"We are funded and it does not cost you for search and rescue services. It's actually incredibly economical," Jarrett says.
He says it costs them about $280 a call. It's why he encourages folks who are in trouble but may be worried about cost, to call sooner than later.
We stood by the lift for close to a half an hour, asking folks whether they were heading into the backcountry. None of the skiers or snowboarders said they were going out of bounds Thursday afternoon.