Springtime in the Rockies

Our last official 2010 avalanche advisory was posted on April 8.  We are no longer getting out on a regular basis to gather data.  We will continue to post public observations as we receive them but will no longer assign a danger rating or post snowpack analysis.

There will be some great skiing and riding conditions well into May and June this year along with the potential for avalanches with new snow or warm weather.  With the cool wet weather pattern extending it’s reach into spring it will be likely to see a few more big powder dumps even into May.  Whenever this happens you need to have a high level of awareness about how the snowpack reacts.  Typically after a day or two the snow has had time to adjust and stabilize. Pay particular attention to steep wind-loaded terrain.

This late in the year conditions may quickly transition from dry to wet snow avalanche concerns.  We really haven’t been through a serious melt-freeze cycle at the high elevations nor seen many clear sunny days yet so during periods of rapid warming expect to see dangerous avalanche conditions with large wet slab avalanches breaking deep within the snowpack.  Also ridgeline cornices are as big as I’ve ever seen them and can be a major hazard by themselves during warm weather.  Treat them with respect and don’t trust their strength.

When it warms enough to get “punchy” or you easily sink to your boot tops in wet snow, it’s time to move to a more shaded slope.  Get off of and out from under big cornices and steep open terrain.

This past winter was epic by all accounts.  It certainly keep us busy at the avalanche center.  We posted over 40 advisories this year and several special avalanche warnings.  We also investigated one avalanche accident and received reports from several individuals who had close calls this winter.  We feel pretty fortunate that none of these involved any serious injuries.

Education is the biggest part of our program and we again extended the number of classes made available to the public and more than doubled the outreach into western Montana schools.  Thanks to Ben Adkinson who taught over 70 avalanche safety programs reaching 1982 students.  We plan to use Ben again next year for this program.  We offered 4 level 1 classes and 1 Level 2 as well as a number of free awareness sessions to approximately 500 people this winter.  Thanks also to Carole Johnson and Dan Frigard who offered free classes and training to about 450 people in the lower Clark fork Valley.

This program could not be as successful as it is without the financial help and contributed time we receive from many different agencies and people.  Thanks go out to:

  • Missoula Office of the National Weather Service for the excellent daily backcountry weather forecast.
  • Lolo, Clearwater and Bitterroot National Forests for contributing employees to collect snow data.
  • Yurtski, Lost Trail and Montana Snowbowl for hosting our backcountry avalanche safety classes.
  • Ross Peterson for his awesome background IT work – if not for Ross we’d be in the electronic dark ages.
  • The Trail 103.3 FM
  • The On Store for their generous donation of a Flip camera and a GoPro Hero camera which we used to help better illustrate snowpack conditions which we posted on YouTube.
  • University of Montana Outdoor Program
  • MT Fish Wildlife and Parks
  • Skip Horner for his benefit slide show on guiding the Seven Summits.
  • Adam Clark, a UM grad student, for sending in consistent detailed observations.
  • Everyone who sent an observation – we really do appreciate these.  This is a big area and hard to cover.
  • We really appreciate all the folks who were willing to share their avalanche accident/close call experiences.
  • Everyone who attended Burning Dog, Warren Miller, Kettle House Pint Night and particularly those who donated outright through PayPal.
  • Todd Frank and the Board of Directors of the West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation.  Their hard work volunteering their time has made this one of the more successful friends group/avalanche center relationships in the country.

This is only a partial list but Dudley, Tim and I wish to extend our deep appreciation to everyone who supports the work our small center is doing.  We look forward to another safe, successful winter next year.  Have a safe and fun summer!

Steve Karkanen,  Director,  West Central Montana Avalanche Center