It may seem like winter has been slow in arriving to southwest Montana, but the winter we have received has made for some dicey backcountry snow conditions.
Last weekend three people were killed in avalanches around southwest Montana. A skier and snowmobiler were killed in separate incidents near Cooke City on Saturday. Another snowmobiler was killed near Philipsburg Sunday.
“Just over the course of this weekend we’ve had more avalanche fatalities in southwest Montana than we had in the entire state last season,” said Eric Knoff, forecaster with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman.
Unfortunately, the instability of the snowpack could persist throughout the season, Knoff said.
So, unlike last winter when the snowpack was stable and relatively safe, this year recreationalists will need to use an abundance of caution when in the back country.
“This season is nothing like last season,” he said.
The culprit in this year’s snowpack is a crust layer on top of an old snow layer that has deteriorated dramatically, Knoff said. The base layer of snow has turned into the consistency of sugar, making it very unstable.
The skier who was killed over the weekend triggered the avalanche from the base of the slope, he said.
“They triggered the avalanche which broke 250 feet above them and they triggered it from the bottom of the slope,” Knoff said.
As winter wears on the unstable layer of snow will persist because it will become insulated by future snowpack.
Around Madison County, people who are out looking for places to recreate are going to want to play in spots that could be very unstable, said Jonathan Klein at the Madison Ranger District.
Since southwest Montana hasn’t received that much snow, the places that do have stashes of deeper powder will be wind loaded, Klein said. These wind loaded slopes will be extra sensitive to avalanche triggers.
“People need to go out there and really understand that things are dicey – that they have to be extra careful,” Klein said. “That sugar snow persists … things just want to slide on it. It’s like little ball bearings under there.”
People who are in the backcountry also need to understand that small avalanches can be just as dangerous as large ones, Knoff said.
“Just as many people get caught and killed in small avalanches as they do large avalanches,” he said.
People also should pay close attention to the slopes above them when they’re travelling into an area, Knoff said.
“Pay attention to any steep slope or any lower angle slope that’s connected to a larger slope above,” he said.
Also, three simple rules everyone should follow are: make sure everybody has rescue gear and knows how to use it, only expose one person at a time to avalanche terrain, always watch your partner from a safe location.
And though winter has been slower than normal to develop in Montana, the models are still pointing to a wetter and cooler than normal season, said Megan Vandenhauvel, forecaster with the National Weather Service in Great Falls.
However, in the short term people should expect the mild temperatures, a lack of snow and winds to persist across southwest Montana, Vandenhauvel said.
In Montana much of the snow typically comes later in the winter, so if you’re watching the forecast hoping for better skiing, don’t lose hope.
“Just because we haven’t seen much snow recently it’s still very early in the season and a lot of different things could change,” she said.
For more information on avalanche conditions or for the latest avalanche forecast, go to the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center website at http www.mtavalanche.com.