The avalanche danger in the west central Montana backcountry is CONSIDERABLE in wind loaded terrain and MODERATE elsewhere.

Good Morning. This is Jeff Carty with the West Central Montana Avalanche Center advisory on Saturday, February 13, 2021. This advisory is sponsored by Spark R&D. This advisory does not apply to operating ski areas and expires at midnight tonight. The USDA Forest Service is solely responsible for its content.

Frigid temperatures have settled in over the last 48hrs. It is currently -10ºF at 7800′ and temperatures have dipped to -26º in the last 24 hours. Winds have been moderate, with extreme gusts out of the northeast. Snow has continued to fall and there has been ~0.3″ of SWE in the past 48hrs. Winds are shifting to more easterly today and will be moderate with strong gusts, perfect for transporting snow.

The cold is slowing or stalling the bonding of the new snow to the January 13 crust/facet layer. In some areas, where the snowpack is less than 6 feet deep, facets may be growing and weakening bonds. Near surface facets are forming in the top 4″ of the snowpack, these may cause issues with the next significant load of snow.

Windslab remains a concern. Fresh wind slab is currently building with wind and ample soft snow. West and south aspects have been loaded by easterly winds. Wind slab may exist on other aspects as well. Natural windslab avalanches have occurred over the past two days. Where slides did not occur during the storm, much of the wind slab sits on the rain crust/facet combo and has the potential to propagate long distances creating large destructive avalanches. It is likely to trigger windslab in steep start zones above 6000′ today.

Snowpack variability continues to be a theme throughout the forecast area with the new snow sitting on a variety of surfaces and bonding at different rates. Some areas in Lolo and the central Bitterroot showed good bonding, while other areas in Lolo, the Rattlesnake, the central and southern Bitterroot, and the Seeley Lake area still have buried surface hoar, facets, and the January 13 crust/facet layer that have not yet bonded and are capable of producing large avalanches. An avalanche was remotely triggered on this layer on Thursday the 11th (video). Investigate the snowpack often as you ascend to get an idea of the problems and instabilities.

Facets and depth hoar are present where the snowpack was shallow prior to the last storm. These are still reactive and capable of the low likelihood/high consequence failures we have been concerned about for a while. On Sunday, an intentional skier triggered avalanche in the southern Bitterroot failed in depth hoar at the ground. Collapsing occurred during travel Wednesday at mid elevations on Mt. Ward, and in shallow areas in the southern Bitterroot, indicating poor structure capable of avalanching. Similar structure to this exists at mid elevations throughout the forecast area, at all elevations in the Rattlesnake, and in previous shallow spots such as windswept ridges. Wind slab avalanches and cornice failures may step down to these deeper instabilities. Take care and stay heads up as you travel in these areas. It is best to avoid slopes over 30º where the weak faceted base exists.

Widespread natural avalanches failed over the weekend in the southern Bitterroot. These primarily failed on east slopes indicating windslab. They likely slid on the Jan 13 rain crust/facet layer. Where slopes did not fail, weak layers are still present and may still fail with a trigger such as a skier or rider.

Last week, there were 16 avalanche fatalities in the US, including one in the northern Swans on Saturday. This is the most avalanche deaths in a week since 1910. The snowpack throughout the western US is unstable, and backcountry use has increased dramatically this year. These deaths are a sobering reminder to make conservative choices. Given the variability of our current snowpack and the complexity this adds to decision making, it is a good time to enjoy the powder on low angle slopes, and allow more time before venturing into avalanche terrain.

The Bottom Line

It is likely to trigger windslab in upper elevation, wind loaded terrain today. It is possible to trigger an avalanche on persistent weak layers underlying the new snow. It is possible to trigger avalanches on depth hoar in areas that were shallow prior to the storm. Avoid wind loaded terrain and stay alert for thin areas where basal faceting may exist. Investigate that snow often to determine the bonding at the new snow/old snow interface.

Carry a beacon, shovel, and probe. Remember to reassess conditions throughout the day and stay alert for signs of instability. Dig a pit. Look for red flags.

Upcoming Education Events:

Please visit our education page for an up to date list of regional educational events and course offerings. Below are a few select events and opportunities to check out.

    • February 17th, 6-7:30 PM MST | FREE Online 1.5-hr Avalanche Awareness Session | Missoulaavalanche.org event | Delivered by A3 Pro instructors | Get more details and register HERE

Public Observations

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to send in a public observation. Please keep sharing what you find and see while out in the backcountry. This online forum is a great resource to glean information about current conditions.

You can now text us your observations to (406) 219-5566 when you don’t have time to fill out the observations page. Texted observations won’t get posted on the website, but will be used in the development of the forecast.

Ski and ride safe.