For snowmobilers seeking steep mountain riding with loads of snow, Cooke City, Mont., is a white Nirvana.
“It’s stunning. It takes your breath away,” said Doug Chabot of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.
Just northeast of Yellowstone National Park in Montana’s steep Beartooth Mountains are big valleys surrounded by treeless slopes that climb 300 vertical feet or more to the top of 9,000- to 10,000-foot peaks. Combine the terrain with consistent snowfall that can cloak the mountains in nine feet of snow or more and it’s easy to see why riders from as far away as Minnesota are drawn to the region and why snowmobiling magazines rate the area as one of the best in the West.
“It hits this sweet spot. It has the culture and feel of being more remote and out there,” Chabot said.
There’s a dark side to all of that white. The same conditions that make Cooke City so attractive also can prove deadly — a high concentration of big, steep mountains; old mining roads that provide easy access into the heart of the mountains; and heavy annual snowfall that causes lots of avalanches.
Based on data compiled by the avalanche center, it is “the most deadly piece of real estate in the United States for snowmobilers,” Chabot wrote in an article.
“I was talking to people last year in Cooke City and they weren’t even aware of their status,” he said.
Neither was Chabot until he and a colleague plotted southwest Montana avalanche deaths on a map and saw the concentration of fatalities near Cooke City. During the past 15 years, a 5-square-mile area has accounted for 14 snowmobiler fatalities, men ranging in age from 18 to 52 trapped and killed by avalanches.
When the information was compared to the national avalanche fatality database in Colorado, they found no other place like Cooke City in the United States.
“It’s not something we advertise,” said Shannan Abelseth of Cooke City Motorsports. “It’s something we try to educate people about.”
To that end, the avalanche center has used funds provided through a Montana State Parks grant to hold free classes every Friday night and a short field course on Saturday mornings to educate snowmobilers who visit Cooke City. Since starting Thanksgiving weekend, Chabot said the classes have touched about 400 riders, mostly out-of-staters.
“We haven’t killed any snowmobilers this year, and we’ve had prime opportunities to do so,” Abelseth said. “So I do believe the avalanche classes are making a difference.”
According to national statistics gathered by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, snowmobiler deaths in avalanches first spiked in 1994. In that year fatalities jumped to nine after averaging less than two deaths during the previous 12 years based on data collected from 17 states.
Brian Lazar, deputy director of the center, attributed that increase to snowmobile manufacturers introducing more powerful snowmobiles with longer tracks designed specifically for mountain riding.
“The equipment has gotten lighter, allowing people with entry-level skill sets to get into avalanche-prone terrain,” Lazar said. “The barrier has come down due to technology.”
Unfortunately, back in 1994 many of those snowmobilers were unaware of avalanche safety gear, terrain dangers or proper riding techniques. The worst year for snowmobile fatalities in the U.S. was 2002, when 18 deaths in avalanches were recorded. Since 1950, 249 snowmobiler deaths in avalanches have been recorded in the United States.
“One out of 50 snowmobilers seven years ago were wearing an avalanche pack,” Abelseth said. “The rate today is 90 to 95 percent. So these guys are educating themselves. They’re realizing what kind of danger they can get themselves in, and not just here.”