Snowflake to Avalanche

by Douglas Hoagland ’15

By itself, a snowflake is a marvelously unique crystallization of water. It can be gathered with more of its kind to make snowballs, snowmen, or pushed aside for a snow angel’s frame. Snowflakes can even be collected to a great enough magnitude for people to live within them comfortably and call them a home.

However, anything in excess can be deadly–especially a medium ranging in so deceptively grand a scale. From a snowflake to an avalanche, snow balances on a scale that, when tipped in the wrong direction, can spill deadly and fast on an environment, and destroy everything and everyone in its hazardous path.

Abby Kent ’12, a candidate for an MFA in science and natural history filmmaking at Montana State University, recently completed Avalanche Engineers, a short documentary film that she explains, “delves deep into the mysteries of the snowpack to find out how a snowflake can become an avalanche.”

Avalanche Engineers follows two scientists who create micro-avalanches in the controlled environment of a laboratory, and unpredictable backcountry mountains surrounding Bozeman, which contain four Class A avalanche zones—the most severe—at nearby skiing areas and backcountry locations.

Working primarily at the university’s Subzero Laboratory, Kent filmed as the scientists simulated winter environments in the cutting-edge indoor snow facility that is kept at 18 degrees. “The scientists are attempting to replicate avalanche conditions and better understand how they work in nature,” she explains. “Alongside the lab research, I also follow one of the scientists into the backcountry to document an Extended Column Test. This test is used widely to determine if a slope is likely to avalanche, but it isn’t always an indicator of a stable snowpack. I hope that this film shows people how vastly complicated snow is, and to never feel complacent when they choose to recreate in the mountains in winter.”

Kent has hosted a successful online fundraising campaign to fund her film, which was released earlier this year.

“People worship snow as if it were a religion, without knowing much about it or how dangerous it can be. My goal with this film is to get people informed and engaged with the material they adventure on, to make them that much safer by knowing how snow and avalanches work,” says Kent, who grew up in various mountain communities from Vermont to Idaho.

Avalanche Engineers was accepted into the 2014 Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City and the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival in Arizona. The film was also recently featured in Backcountry magazine.

Kent credits her research with HWS Professor of Geoscience John Halfman, her majors in studio art and U.S. history, and the Salisbury Center for Career, Professional and Experiential Education’s Media and Society trip to Los Angeles, Calif., as inspiration to combine all of her interests and skills into one goal. “Filming on top of a mountain can really change your perspective,” says Kent. “And it sure beats working at a desk all day. Surrounded by mountains and wildlife, I couldn’t have picked a better place to be filming. I’m truly grateful to be doing what I love in the beautiful state of Montana.”


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.