On The Way In
Coffee and Class Time
The Yurt
Shoot the Angle
Pit School
Practicing isolating columns
Branham Peak
The Way Home

Backcountry Lessons

Taking an avalanche class in avalanche terrain at the Bell Lake Yurt

Words: Will Eginton

As more backcountry travelers push out the gates, up the skin track, and into the wilderness, the issue of snow safety education becomes all the more important. In such a tight-knit community, the effects of avalanches and avalanche related deaths resonate through and through, top to bottom. Refresher courses and practical recovery drills are touted, but can easily fall by the wayside once the snow starts flying. After an early season of quick day tours and mellow backcountry laps, I realized it was time for me to get educated.

So I found myself stumbling into The Town Hall Diner at 7:30 A.M. For a Friday in the middle of winter, it was surprisingly busy. Passing by the Carhartt-clad farmers, it was clear that I was a bit out of place; Harrison, Montana, is not exactly what one would call ski destination. While only an hour from the glitz of Big Sky and crusty down home vibe of Bridger Bowl, skiing is not ingrained in the culture; rather, farmers and ranchers populate the hills that skirt the peaks only ten miles west. In addition to Scott Davidson, Montana Backcountry Adventure's yurtmeister/guide/chef/purveyor of awesome and Tony Jewell, veteran NOLS guide and avalanche instructor, I'm joined by six other individuals: a young massage therapist and her graphic designer husband; a computer programmer who roasts his own coffee; two older family doctors from Cody, Wyoming; and a twenty-two year old recovering park rat clad in way too much cotton.

Our ultimate destination is the Bell Lake Yurt, one of three yurts (the other two are in Big Sky) operated by Kevin Daily and his company, Montana Backcountry Adventures. Situated between Branham, Bell, and Granite Peaks in the heart of the Tobacco Root Mountains, The Bell Lake Yurt is by far the most interesting of Kevin's endeavors. With no ski areas, the Tobacco Roots offer real-deal, raw terrain in a rarely trafficked area of Southwest Montana. The yurt itself is available for rental—in a both guided and unguided fashion—throughout the winter and is usually booked solid by mid-November. In addition to rentals, MBA runs Avie I courses three times a year.

It is because of this Avie I course that we have assembled at this hole-in-the-wall diner in rural Montana. Over a couple short-stacks and bottomless coffee, we discuss why we're all here. While we all harbor different motivations, the underlying theme is simple: travelling in this terrain is dangerous, and with the recent explosion of backcountry travel, it is important to get educated. As we wrap up breakfast, Tony conducts a quick classroom introduction, and we ship out to the trailhead.

In the Tobacco Roots, it's an odd sight to see other backcountry travelers, let alone eight skiers with thirty-pound packs bound for a two-night stay. As Scott Davidson loads the sled with food for the weekend, we begin the mellow tour out to the yurt. It's 11 a.m., and the only tracks seen are our own. It becomes clear this is not the standard Avie course. We are not digging pits just outside the ski area boundary or cooped up in a classroom staring at a whiteboard. Instruction is delivered over the faint thud of boots against climbing bales. After three miles of gliding along a road, we break for lunch and some extensive transceiver drills. We are alone, far removed from the beacon parks of Bozeman, Bridger, and Big Sky.

As we begin the second half of the slog to the yurt, the mountains reveal themselves: quick tree shots, wide-open meadows, and raw couloirs dominate the landscape. It's the type of terrain that would take years to explore, understand, and truly appreciate. Yet MBA's yurt is the only operation in the area. By the time we arrive at the yurt, Scott has the fire raging and snacks on the table. We take a 10-minute skin from the yurt to Bell Lake itself. Ten-thousand-foot Bell Peak is backlit by the waning sun and to the east, the moon rises over Branham Peak.

The beauty of MBA's avalanche safety trip lies in its l divergence from traditional avalanche courses. It forces skiers to step out of their comfort zone into a real backcountry experience. There is no patrol, the snowpack is not already regulated, and injuries cannot be taken lightly. In short, these courses take place in the type of terrain in which one wishes to travel.

After a brief classroom session over eggs and coffee, the second day is spent doing rescue scenarios in the morning, discussing proper route planning around lunch, and pit digging in the afternoon. Eventually, the group climbed to 9,500 feet and assess the snowpack. We bang out multiple CT's, ECTs, and even a Rutschblock test or two. After a full day of tests, we finally reap the glory of our efforts in the form of a 1,000-foot descent through the trees. Hero snow, creamy and stable, leaves the group giddy and excited for the third and final day of our course.

Day three saw much of the same: a morning classroom session, pits, and creamy snow harvesting. We leave the yurt in the early afternoon, descending through the trees, across the flats, and skating the road back to the cars. Back to the offices, jobs, and lives that wait on the other side of the valley. We all leave with a greater appreciation for snow safety techniques, some much needed recovery practice, and a few blisters. But the beauty of the course is it's ability to bring together a bizarre swath of skiers for a weekend of backcountry travel in a cohesive unit. We caravan back to Bozeman, frothing for another chance to get back to Bell Lake.

Details, Details:
The Bell Lake Yurt sits at 8,500 feet in the heart of the Tobacco Root Mountain Range. It is available for overnight rentals, avalanche courses, and guided tours. While the overnight rates clock in at $250 dollars, an additional guiding service is mandatory for first timers ($150). The avalanche safety course, offered three times a year, rings in at a cool $500. New this year, The Yurt is hosting a women's specific avalanche course. Additionally, MBA also offers a three-day, two-night guided option for $500. The yurt itself comfortably sleeps ten, and the stove keeps things warm. The trailhead is an hour from both Bozeman and Butte, and an hour and a half from Helena.