Avalanche danger high as snow continues to fall
Unstable layers, wind, cold temperatures all risk factors
MCALLISTER—Reader Eric Shores submitted this photo of an avalanche triggered when the group of backcountry skiers he was with traversed a 26-degree slope up South Meadow Creek in the Tobacco Root Mountains last week.
Fortunately, no one in Shores’ group was injured. But this avalanche comes just two weeks after an avalanche in the same range killed one skier and injured another outside Pony.
As snow continues to fall in waves over southwest Montana, strong winds can lead to the creation of unstable cornices on slopes and can cover cracks and other instabilities with fresh powder, making avalanche danger difficult to gauge. Unstable snow can fall or slide in slabs as seen in the photo, taken by one of Shores’ group.
By the end of last week, many areas of southwest Montana had reached high avalanche dangers, according to the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. But by early this week much of those ratings had been downgraded to moderate—a 2/5 rating, rather than the 4/5 that the Southern Madison and Southern Gallatin ranges had received around Valentine’s Day.
Much of that mitigated avalanche came from a warmer snap that compacted snowpack and a break in new snow for several days. But once more snow falls on top of those compacted layers, weak spots will be more heavily weighted, and the avalanche danger will rise again.
The Madison Range saw six avalanches last weekend: two on Friday, February 15, one on Saturday, February 16 and three on Sunday, February 17.
Both of Friday’s avalanches were natural ones in Beehive Basin and Taylor Fork, reported by skiers who had been in the area who said they’d seen no cracking or collapsing of the surrounding snow. That just goes to show how unpredictable avalanches can be, triggered by little more than a breeze and offering little to no warning until it’s too late to move out of the way.
Saturday’s avalanche was also in Taylor Fork, triggered by a snowmobiler. Snowmobiles also triggered two of Sunday’s slides: one on Buck Ridge near First Yellowmule and one in McAtee Basin.
For up-to-date avalanche information, avalanche forecasts and risk levels and a list of avalanche activity, visit the GNFAC’s website at mtavalanche.com.