Even in the summer, Doug Chabot has winter avalanches on his mind.
This past June, the director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman traveled to the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan to follow up on a devastating avalanche cycle in February that killed an estimated 168 people and injured 53 more.
“It was really eye opening,” Chabot said. “The locals hadn’t seen an avalanche cycle like this in over 100 years.”
While winter avalanche fatalities in the United States may range somewhere between 20 to 35 a year — typically affecting backcountry skiers, snowboarders or snowmobilers — in Central Asia, the death toll from a single slide can number in the 100s and bury entire villages.
“Over in Asia, they are truly victims,” Chabot said.
Avalanche forecasts, such as the ones Chabot and the rest of the center’s staff produce daily, warn winter recreationists in mountainous regions about the level of avalanche danger. The center’s staff also teaches classes on safe travel in avalanche terrain and publishes avalanche accident reports to try to enlighten recreationists to the hazards.
“We have choices in the western world,” Chabot said.
But in Asia, there are few avalanche forecasters. Remote weather stations that could alert the forecasters to conditions that would trigger slides are scarce. Accompanying Chabot to the Panjshir Valley was one of the four members of Afghanistan’s Avalanche Control Team, of which there are only four in the entire country.
Last year’s avalanches in the Panjshir Valley struck in the middle of the night Feb. 25 while villagers were asleep. It was estimated that 30 avalanches roared 5,000 to 6,000 feet down the steep mountainsides into the narrow valleys below after days of heavy snow.
30 number of avalanches that fell on the night of Feb. 25
5,000 to 6,000 feet distance avalanche snow traveled
The nearest weather station recorded more than 7 feet of snow accumulation atop the mountains over five days. High winds could have doubled that depth, Chabot wrote in a report about his visit.
When the slides released, some gained so much speed that they crossed the valley floor and climbed up the opposite mountainside. “Some of the slides crossed the river and hit homes (150 feet) or more up the opposite side of the valley,” Chabot wrote.
Twelve feet of snow buried the only road into the valley, requiring a week of work to clear and reopen. It took days for villagers to walk to the nearest phone to call for help.
“It was the largest loss of life in one avalanche event that I’m aware of,” Chabot said.
Killer avalanches like the one in the Panjshir Valley are unheard of in Europe, Canada and the United States. Avalanche forecasts and mitigation prevent such disasters. But even what seems like a simple task to westerners — moving out of an avalanche zone — is problematic in places like Afghanistan.
“In some places, moving a home 200 feet would get them out of the runout zone,” Chabot said. “In other areas it would require moving an entire village.”
Some of the homes are built on ancestral land that the homeowners are unwilling to leave because it holds deep meaning to the family. Or, adjacent land may not be for sale.
On top of that there’s a fatalistic approach —
Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman
“On top of that, there’s a fatalistic approach — inshallah, if God wills it,” Chabot said. “Who am I to decide whether I live or die? It’s in God’s hands.”
So Chabot has been working with a regional humanitarian group to try to educate some of the remote villagers to act as rescue teams and train them about the signs of snow instability — some of the same skills skiers and snowmobilers can learn at one of the Avalanche Center’s workshops. Perhaps if the villagers can recognize that the snowpack is unstable, they could be encouraged to temporarily evacuate.
“It’s one of the few things they could do to lessen the loss of life,” Chabot said.