Welcome Back, Winter! Snow has begun accumulating in earnest in the mountains and valleys of northwest Montana, and there are certainly many of you eager to get into the mountains (and some that already have!). It’s that time of year again to start brushing the dust off of our avalanche gear and wiping away the cobwebs from our avalanche brains. Since it’s snowing and you’re excited, yet riding conditions may not be the best yet, this is a great opportunity to ready your avalanche kit. A few things to consider:
1. Get into the dark depths of the garage and find your avalanche gear buried behind the dirt bike or mountain bike gear. Put fresh batteries in your transceiver. Make sure the batteries are alkaline. Do not use rechargeable or lithium batteries. Turn it on, and make sure it still works properly. Seriously, this helps. One year on the first backcountry day of the season, I turned my beacon on to find out that while I put in new batteries last May, the battery life was down to 30%. Doh!
2. Make sure your shovel and probe are also in working order. Geek out and take a file to the end of the shovel to make sure it’s sharp and prepared for digging. Doug Chabot from the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center shows us how it’s done!
3. Start keeping track of the weather and snowfall. This is the easy one because we’re all excited about winter and tracking each storm as it makes its way to our area. Even if you’re not getting into the backcountry in the early part of the season knowing how the snowpack develops right from the starting gun is very important. One way to keep tabs on the developing snowpack and weather is tuning into the local remote weather and SNOTEL sites in northwest Montana.
4. Brush up on your avalanche skills! Even though you’ve taken a Level 1 last year (or more), it’s still a great idea to refresh your knowledge with an avalanche awareness course during the late fall and early winter. The Flathead Avalanche Center is partnering with local avalanche professionals and organizations to provide numerous avalanche awareness courses throughout the valley in November and December. There are also a number of Level 1 and Level 2 courses offered in the area as well. We’ll have an updated education calendar on the website very soon and it will be updated throughout the winter.
Once November arrived, the switch was finally flipped to winter. A series of winter storms over the past week formed the foundation of our season’s snowpack thus far. Remote weather and SNOTEL sites in the area mountain ranges are reporting about 30 inches of snow on the ground with a hefty water equivalent of up to 6 inches at some sites. The next 24 hours should see a lull in precipitation, and then another vigorous, moist system from the west-southwest ushers in more precipitation Saturday night through Sunday.
If there is enough snow to ski, then there is enough snow for avalanches to occur. Remember, we need four main ingredients for an avalanche to happen:
- Weak layer
All of these components can exist this early in the season. Whether you’re hunting for the first turns of the season or for that prized elk, it’s possible you could encounter unstable snow, particularly above 5000 feet at this time. With the combination of new snow from yesterday and sufficient wind, there is likely to be fresh wind slabs.
Another concern is the heavier snow that fell since temperatures rose throughout the day yesterday. This heavy snow fell on top of lighter snow that may not be strong enough to support it.
We will update this early season information as necessary or when we receive more observations. If your venturing out in the backcountry please drop us a line to share your observations. Observations are always valuable particularly this early in the season when we are all trying to get a handle on the snowpack.