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Weather Wise: Avalanche Alert

Weather Wise: Avalanche Alert
Posted at 5:36 PM, Jan 29, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-30 12:14:26-05

It's been a weird year for snow as the snowpack is not only well below average, but it's quite unstable across Montana and the West. The avalanche danger in the backcountry is not to be trifled with.

It has not been a good year for snowfall or for avalanche conditions. What little snow has fallen has come in spurts with long stretches of dry weather in between. At times there have been warm periods with rain in the higher elevations around extreme cold with light density snow. The variability in snow and temperature this year has created a snowpack that is unusually and remarkably weak, meaning avalanches are ready to release here in Montana but also across the west.

So far this year in the west there have been four fatalities. The first occurred in bounds at Palisades Ski Area in California. Just a day later in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho, two backcountry skiers were caught in an avalanche with one killed. Fatalities have occurred in Wyoming and Colorado this January. In the last ten years, 150 lives have been lost in the west, 28 of those happening in Montana.

Until steady stretches of snow and cold persist (and that may never happen this year), the avalanche conditions will continue to be unstable.

Many avalanches have been observed here in Montana's mountains recently. Backcountry skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and even those snowshoeing should use extreme caution going forward. It's possible to trigger avalanches from a distance, which can become large and potentially deadly. Reduce your risk by staying on slopes less than 30 degrees, limit travel above terrain traps like cliffs, gullies and exposed rocks and trees. Dig your avalanche pits to assess local stability and have all the right gear and partners.

There's a lot of season left with extreme avalanche danger that will lurk and linger.