Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Avalanche Season Is Here

While back East people enjoyed unseasonably warm temperatures through December that were more amenable to playing frisbee or golf than sledding or skiing, we had plenty of early season snow, plus temperatures that averaged a bit below normal since November 1. 

Bridger Bowl Snow Report, Christmas Eve, 2015
The ski areas are going strong. Just fifteen miles north of us, Mother Nature dumped one hundred and nine inches of snow at the community sponsored Bridger Bowl skiing area through Christmas Eve. Powder and packed powder were the norm. A fresh coat of snow was falling almost every day.

Nearby to our south, the Big Sky ski resort reported a 40 to 60 inch snow base and "fantastic skiing and riding." Big Sky invites "C’mon out and enjoy the biggest skiing in America! We’re sure you’ll be stoked you did!"

The Bozeman Chronicle reported on the early season opening of the ski season.
Santa Claus came early and filled Bridger Bowl with 2 feet of smoky snow this week, appeasing the valley’s powder hounds. From the ski hill’s parking lot it was apparent that Bozeman had been stricken with the powder flu — 2,305 skied Thursday.
Cooper Krause, 26, an engineer for Morrison-Maierle, had to go in to work this morning but was still on the slopes by noon, enjoying the fresh snow.
“It’s pretty good,” Krause said as he pushed off with a friend at the top of the Sunnyside Lift. 
The Dec. 11 opening day at Bridger Bowl was a week later than last year. But the weather’s been cooperating since and 13,265 people have visited in the first week.
“This time of year it’s always a touchy point waiting for the right storms to really kick things off,” said Doug Wales, Bridger Bowl’s director of marketing. “Some years you start fat and happy.”
Wales was a bit skeptical about the preseason forecasts for a warm, dry El NiƱo year in the Rocky Mountains. 
“It’s setting up well now and right when we need it for the holidays,” Wales said. 
“The big challenge is getting the snow, and we’re on our way. Obviously its got to keep up and we’ll continue to make snow as much as we can early on,” he said. “But we’re excited about where we are today.”

Here is a video of the skiing at Bridger Bowl earlier this week.

But at the same time the Chronicle warned.

Out-of-bounds and backcountry skiers take note, the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center said danger was high on steep and windy slopes.
“The Bridger Range has received close to 2 feet of snow this week and over 1 inch of snow water equivalent. Yesterday’s low density snow will create loose snow avalanches that could become large enough to knock you over or trigger a larger avalanche. Strong winds prior to yesterday formed wind slabs on a weak snowpack that we observed on Saddle Peak last Sunday. New snow and a weak snowpack will make the avalanche danger today high on slopes steeper than 35 degrees and all wind-loaded terrain. Avalanche danger is considerable on all other slopes,” read Thursday’s report.
To call attention to the potential for danger and publicize conditions, the Avalanche Center made an early season trip up Mt. Ellis (visible out my window over the laptop as I blog). For a flatlander like myself, Mt. Ellis a great place to hike -- before the snow falls.

Here was the Avalanche Center's December 19th warning.
The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center is issuing a Backcountry Avalanche Warning for the mountains near Cooke City, the Madison Range, the Gallatin Range, the Lionhead area near West Yellowstone, and the Bridger Range. Continuous snowfall and strong winds have added weight to a weak and unstable snowpack. Strong wind this morning will continue to load slopes. The avalanche danger is rated HIGH on all slopes. Natural and human triggered slides are likely. Avalanche terrain and avalanche runout zones should be avoided.
Sadly, the potential for tragedy came to pass.
The Park County Sheriff’s office has identified the snowmobiler killed in an avalanche north of Cooke City Saturday. He was 33-year-old Jason Wald of Bismarck, North Dakota.
Wald was one of a party of five snomobilers on a steep slope at about 1:00 Saturday afternoon. According to a video made by Doug Chabot with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, the riders were aware they were in a bad spot.
"They knew the danger was high, they felt like they needed to go elsewhere, it just didn’t happen soon enough."
Chabot says Wald triggered the slide as he rode past a 22-year-old man and his father who were talking about turning around. The 22-year-old was completely buried in the slide, but was dug out quickly and survived, as did his father, who was partially buried. Wald, who did not survive, was buried about six feet deep.
Chabot says the avalanche danger around Cooke City remains high. 
"We have about a foot to a foot-and-a-half of really weak, sugary snow on the ground, and that snow is really unstable."
Here is the investigation video.

While his colleagues held back, the victim headed up a slope that was too loaded and too steep. Mr. Wald failed to deploy his airpack, which would have given him a fighting chance to remain at or near the top of the cascading slide.

We had a no to little snow hiatus the last ten days, a break which should come to an end later this week. When we do get fresh new snow, the soft sugary base at the bottom of the snowpack persists -- throughout the winter. New snow and gusty winds will periodically increase the danger for avalanche as the season moves on. Be careful out there. Beware of steep wind loaded slopes, avoid cornices and stay in the trees. 

Previous Avalanche Posts:

Beware The Avalanche

Skiing Into Oblivion

Avalanche Advisories Issued

More Avalanche

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