Cooke City takes the cake for April 8 snow water equivalent levels while Lone Mountain pulls up the rear. The depths are tracked by NRCS STOTEL (snow telemetry) stations that measure water content, snow depth and more. One inch of snow water equivalent equals about a foot of snow. The Gallatin River Basin may not have the highest snow water equivalent in the state, but at 44 percent above average, it’s still a near-record breaking season as of early April. The region has also seen consistently steady snowfall, a good sign for stakeholders, agriculturists and tourists who hope for a summer season on the Gallatin with plenty of water and low fire danger. Also, check out the note about staff cuts in the yellow box in the top right corner.

Lone Mountain on track for record-breaking snow year

If you listen to ski stories from longtime Big Sky locals, you’ll hear of the fabled winter of 1996-97—the season the powder just wouldn’t quit. Official snow records back up the claim it was the “best winter ever” in terms of snowfall. And now, the opinion that this winter has been the snowiest since then is backed up by snow data as well. 

     Lucas Zukiewicz, the NRCS Montana water supply specialist, said Big Sky might be on track to beat the 1997 snowfall record. Zukiewicz checked the Lone Mountain SNOTEL station on the afternoon of April 9 and found the snow water equivalent was reading 27.8 inches—just .8 inches less than the record-breaking 1997 level.

     “And, with another month of spring precipitation, even normal precipitation, it would not be out of the ordinary for Lone Mountain to get record accumulation,” Zukiewicz said, noting snowpack levels at higher elevations don’t typically peak until mid-April or May, and Lone Mountain already holds the second highest recorded snow since records began 27 years ago. “So there’s more to come, much to the chagrin of some people.”

     Snowfall records on the NRCS website paint a picture of consistent snowfall throughout the winter in Montana and the Gallatin River Basin. Cold air from Canada frequently collided with storms coming in from the west and northwest, creating the perfect conditions for snow to stack up. 

     “While many areas have been setting record (snowfall) lows, Montana is looking at breaking record highs,” said Zukiewicz, who’s been studying the snowpack all winter in order to predict what spring runoff and summer water supply will look like. (The answer? Looking good.)

     One of those record-setting areas is Cooke City, where the white stuff has piled so high Zukiewicz said the community is running out of room to move it around. So they are taking loads to the local dump. The Gallatin River Basin hasn’t broken any top records yet, but winter inasmuch as snowfall is concerned, is far from over. Long-range predictions by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center continue to forecast above average precipitation and below average temperatures through the end of April.

     The NRCS will issue another snow survey report May 5, one that Zukiewicz expects will paint an even better picture of how record-breaking this winter has been. 

     Another entity consistently keeping an eye on snowfall is the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. The organization’s team of avalanche forecasters recently wrapped up its daily advisories, issuing them only on Mondays and Fridays until the end of April.

     GNFAC Director Doug Chabot has been analyzing snowpack in Southwest Montana for more than two decades, and agrees this winter’s snowfall is special. 

     “This is the longest winter I can remember,” he wrote in an email to the Lookout. “The first snows came on September 18 and it never really let up. There was no Indian Summer, just cold and snowy. The last time it was this snowy was the winter of 1996-97.”

     On April 9, the GNFAC sent out a graph highlighting snow water equivalents from around the advisory area, with Cooke City clearly taking the lead. Lone Mountain came in last, but not by posting a low number. It’s received 10 inches more snow water equivalent than last year at this time. 

     GNFAC continues to advise backcountry users to use caution, watching for wind loaded slopes as fresh snow keeps falling, as well as wet avalanches with temperatures and sunshine exposure increasing. Cornices, described as being “behemoth” and “Winnebago-sized,” have been seen around the advisory area, including Taylor Fork. They are best left alone.

     Chabot may love the snow, but like many he’s ready for warmer days. 

     “I have been craving a trip to the desert to rock climb for a couple months now,” he wrote. “I dream of wearing shorts and flip flops and won't miss my skis one bit.”

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Lone Peak Lookout

235 Snowy Mtn Circle
Big Sky, MT 59716

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