Montana Outdoors

Feb 24, 2012 6:25 PM by Mark Holyoak (KPAX News)

Backcountry avalanche risk listed moderate to high

MISSOULA- If you have plans to head to the backcountry this weekend, you may want to rethink those plans. Avalanche centers across Montana and the Idaho Panhandle report moderate to high risks for avalanches.

"Recent snowfall and strong winds have created unstable conditions," says Doug Chabot with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. "Be extra conservative in your decision-making."

Two snowmobilers died this past week alone. One of them got caught in a slide near Hungry Horse Reservoir on Monday and another died Wednesday near Cooke City.

"There have been about 20 avalanche fatalities in the U.S. this winter, nine in the last two weeks, and six of these nine were in terrain near ski areas," said Chabot.

Officials advise you to avoid upper elevations with steep slopes and monitor the weather and local advisories before entering the backcountry. The advisories are for backcountry travel and do not apply to operating ski areas.

Forest Service avalanche specialists advise that avoidance is the most effective way to safely recreate when snow and avalanche conditions are poor. Slopes where avalanches typically occur are between 30 and 45 degrees in steepness. With current avalanche risks, people should avoid slopes greater than 30 degrees in most cases. Trails and low-angle meadows without steep slopes above them are generally safer terrain choices at times of poor snow stability.


West Central Montana:
Steve Karkanen at the West Central Montana Avalanche Center says the avalanche danger is high at elevations above 6,000 feet on terrain steeper than 30 degrees from Lolo Pass along the Bitterroot Mountains to Lost Trail Pass. In the northern Bitterroot from near Lolo Pass north to Lookout Pass, as well as the Rattlesnake Wilderness and southern Mission and Swan Mountains near Seeley Lake, the avalanche danger is considerable on slopes steeper than 35 degrees above 6000 feet. Terrain below 6000 feet has moderate avalanche danger.

Idaho Panhandle:
Kevin Davis of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest reports a winter storm warning is in effect from 10 p.m. on Friday to 4 a.m. on Sunday. The National Weather Service expects 9-13 inches to fall during this period with gusty winds and snow accumulations in the valleys. With the combination of snow and wind, Davis expects the avalanche danger to be high. High danger means natural avalanches are likely and human-triggered avalanches are very likely. People should avoid travel in these locations.

Northwest Montana:
Stan Bones of the Flathead National Forest is reporting considerable avalanche danger between an elevation of 5,000 and 7,500 feet. Considerable danger means natural avalanches are possible and human triggered avalanches are likely. In areas of considerable danger, people should be very cautious and should always turn back if conditions appear unsafe. For areas below 5,000 feet, avalanche danger is moderate. People traveling in the backcountry should evaluate snow and terrain carefully particularly in areas that have received significant amounts of new snowfall.

Greater Yellowstone Area:
Mark Staples with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche issued an advisory on Friday warning that in the mountains around Cooke City and on the Bridger Range. Slopes steeper than 35 degrees have a high avalanche danger with considerable danger on less steep slopes. In the Gallatin and Madison Ranges and the Lionhead area near West Yellowstone avalanche danger is considerable on all slopes.

"This is a tricky time because you may see someone ride a steep slope and not trigger an avalanche," says Staples. "With a thick slab of dense snow covering weak layers in the snowpack, it's hard to say whether the 1st person, the 2nd, or even the 10th person on a slope will trigger it. Seeing ski tracks on a slope doesn't mean it's stable, tracks only mean someone got lucky."

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