Will Powers  /  AP
Avalanches aren't just a back country danger. Here crews remove snow from Interstate 40 west of Denver on Jan. 6 after a huge avalanche swept two cars off the road. Eight people were rescued from the buried vehicles.
updated 2/23/2007 5:44:37 PM ET 2007-02-23T22:44:37

Western states are seeing one of the worst avalanche seasons in years and officials warn it could get worse before it gets better.

"I can certainly say it is one of the worst and we still have a fair bit of winter left," said Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman, Mont.

"We are going to keep getting winter storms and we are going to have avalanche danger for the remainder of the winter," he said.

Last weekend, avalanches killed six people in Montana, Utah and Idaho.

This winter's odd snow season has contributed to problems, Chabot said. It snowed early last fall and then quit. The snow that came in October and November is now weak. Over the past week or two, more than two feet of snow fell on top of that early snow and that was followed by wind.

Two of the deaths last weekend involved snowmobile riders in the Big Belt Mountains northeast of Townsend, Mont.

Lots of new snow raises risk
"In the Big Belts, when I dug around, it looked as if snowpack had almost doubled with one storm," Chabot said. "Any time we add a lot of snow to the snowpack quickly, we can expect to see avalanches, especially when it is sitting on weak snow."

Chabot said similar conditions exist in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

The weekend fatalities were the fourth and fifth in Montana. Nationwide, avalanches have killed 14 people. Another person died in Canada.

"It is a bad year," Chabot said.

Jon Stoltz, one of the owners of Teton Pass Ski Area west of Choteau, Mont., said avalanches are always a concern.

"If you have snow you have avalanches," said Stoltz, who heads up avalanche control at Teton Pass.

First-hand experience
Stoltz, who teaches an avalanche awareness course, has up-close-and-personal avalanche experience.

"I have been in one that I was very lucky to survive and another one that I was right at the very top and stepped off the snow that was moving. In the first one, I thought I had widowed my wife and orphaned my kids," he said.

"Unless you know what the heck you are doing you still are going to get killed no matter how much equipment you have. Stuff can happen," Stoltz said.

Chabot said that anyone traveling in avalanche terrain should have a partner and avalanche education.

"They need to carry rescue gear, an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe. If you do get buried, your only chance of living is your partner digging you out," Chabot said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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