The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (GNFAC) listed the avalanche threat level as ‘considerable’ for the Madison and Gallatin ranges.
“Considerable danger means human triggered avalanches are likely,” Mark Staples, avalanche specialist with the GNFAC said. “There has already been a lot of avalanche activity this season, which is the clearest signal that the snowpack in the area is unstable.”
Though the GNFAC primarily serves Gallatin County, Madison County backcountry enthusiasts still use the center’s information about snowpack and avalanche conditions when planning excursions into the Tobacco Root Mountains.
According to Staples, the Tobacco Root range is not known for better stability than the more-monitored Madison and Gallatin ranges, especially this year since the reason for the weak snowpack can be traced to the extended period of below zero temperatures in early December across Southwest Montana.
“That extreme cold weather really weakened the snowpack,” Staples explained. “We have been getting consistent snow since then—we have a slab of cohesive snow on top of a weak foundation, which is the right recipe for an avalanche.”
Staples continued to say that it can take weeks or even months for the weak snowpack to develop into something more stable for backcountry recreationists to take advantage of safely. The warmer weather of recent weeks does not change the initial weak layer of snow, according to Staples, only consistent snowfall and time can bury that layer, though too much snowfall could reactivate it.
“The big picture this year is that the cold set the stage for this entire season to be unstable,” Staples emphasized.
Jason Racine is a Vermont transplant that has been living in the Ennis area for eight years. Racine spends his winters snowboarding the backcountry. In his opinion, the keys to safely exploring the backcountry this season are experience and patience.
“I always want to be out taking turns, but more or less so far [this year] I have just been out snowmobiling around and digging pits to assess what is going on,” he explained. “Maybe one slope is decent but if you go a couple hundred yards to another slope it can be completely different—cannot throw caution to the wind.”
Racine digs pits on slopes with the same elevation, aspect and snow depth he is interested in skiing. He digs all the way to the ground to examine the various layers of the snowpack so he can see the conditions from early in the season and assess strengths and weaknesses.
“This year all the new snow we got is sitting on top of the early, weak snow and it just wants to slide right off there,” he said.
Racine cautions that even experienced skiers occasionally take conditions for granted and that backcountry recreationists right now should not have high expectations.
“The problem this year is that this applies to everything,” Staples said. “We cannot isolate where the snowpack is weak because the cold effected everything uniformly—the weak layer is found on nearly all slopes.”
Though Staples is comfortable and confident in the backcountry, he said this year he plans to spend his time skiing and snowmobiling away from avalanche terrain—any 30 degree or steeper slope and all connected slopes.
“There is no reason to think we can beat it,” Staples said. “I am not going out in avalanche terrain and I do not recommend anyone does.”