Skiers observed many natural avalanches in Beehive Basin on December 31. "My partner counted 12+ including this one... All avalanche activity was on E or NE slopes which had been hammered by the winds," one backcountry user wrote in an observation email sent to the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. Former Big Sky Resort ski patroller Tom Thorn started BSAFE avalanche safety courses in 2010. Since then, he’s taught hundreds of students the ins and outs of backcountry safety. He’s back at it again this year, teaching on the slopes of Big Sky Resort with classes this January and February. Here, he’s teaching a 2018 class of Level 1 students about snow pits.

A look at Big Sky’s backcountry

Despite government shutdown local snow safety crew stays on the job
“Overall, things are looking good,” Chabot said of Big Sky’s snow stability conditions this winter thus far. But that’s not to say backcountry users, be it skiers, snowmobilers, snowshoers and the like, should drop their guard. Chabot continued his thoughts, cautioning, “There’s always a weak layer out there somewhere.”

The U.S. government shutdown may have been in full swing, but it was business as usual on New Year’s Eve day for Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center Director Doug Chabot. Since GNFAC, run by the Forest Service, is considered vital to public safety, the GNFAC office and its crew of avalanche forecasters remain on the job and in the snow-covered field.

On the morning of December 31 Chabot was enjoying the warmth his Bozeman office, looking at data from the winter’s biggest snowstorm – a foot or so of snow had fallen in the Big Sky area in the last day. Chabot, who spends his days keeping an eye on backcountry snow safety, was pleased to say all that new snow fell on a well-formed base which is measuring in at about three to four feet.

“Overall, things are looking good,” Chabot said of Big Sky’s snow stability conditions this winter thus far. But that’s not to say backcountry users, be it skiers, snowmobilers, snowshoers and the like, should drop their guard. Chabot continued his thoughts, cautioning, “There’s always a weak layer out there somewhere.”

That weak layer for Big Sky’s side country is located about a foot-and-a-half below the surface, where a layer of sugary facets formed during frigid weather in the second week of December. That’s where the GNFAC crew, using data from their own snow pits as well as from backcountry users who send their info in to the avalanche center, are seeing the snowpack break. While that’s a concern for now, Chabot said the danger lessens as the days go on.

With new snow comes the dangers of wind-loading, as some slopes collect blown snow, creating cornices and drifts. While backcountry users have been getting these wind-loaded areas to crack, no major avalanches have been reported in these conditions yet.

Slides are occurring, though – in the last two days of 2018 the GNFAC team observed and received nine reports of avalanche activity. That includes a snowmobile-triggered slide just south of Big Sky in Buck Ridge on December 31, a number of natural slides reported by Yellowstone Club Ski Patrol, as well as reports from backcountry users in Beehive Basin.

The January 1 GNFAC advisory listed these observations, noting that the new avalanche activity is generally confined to new and windblown snow. As for the overall stability of Big Sky’s backcountry, “The snowpack around Big Sky is shaping up to be pretty good,” Chabot said on December 31.

That stable snowpack scenario is not necessarily the case in other areas of the GNFAC’s purview, which encompasses mountain ranges from north of Bozeman to Big Sky, West Yellowstone and Cooke City. When it comes to the snowpack just south of Big Sky, things are not as cheery and bright.

An avalanche warning for the mountains near West Yellowstone and the southern Madison and Gallatin ranges expired as they year came to a close, but the area’s shallow snowpack, measuring in at two to three feet deep, remains weak and unstable. “This is a bad recipe,” said Chabot.

No avalanche injuries or fatalities have occurred in the GNFAC’s advisory areas this winter, but it’s still early in the avalanche season, and Chabot noted that as more snow continues to fall on weak layers, now is when issues begin to arise.

The first avalanche death in the United States this winter occurred On December 22, 2018. According to the Idaho State Journal, a snowmobiler was killed in an avalanche in the Wyoming Range west of Alpine, Wyoming. The 31-year-old man was riding in steep terrain when a 100-foot by 100-foot wind slab came down on him, burying him under the snow and his sled. Rescue efforts were unsuccessful.

The last fatality in the GNFAC advisory area occurred on April 14, 2018 on Saddle Peak in the Bridger Range. While skiing alone the victim triggered a soft slab avalanche that carried him 1,500 feet down a narrow, known avalanche path. He was carrying a beacon, probe and shovel, but with no partner, no one was in the vicinity to dig him out.

The GNFAC team, as they do every winter, will continue to rove the mountain ranges, digging snowpits and updating the public on their findings via daily advisories. Interested in staying on the snow and in the know? Anyone from avid backcountry skiers to causal cross-country users and even weather buffs can likely find useful information within the GNFAC updates. To sign up for daily email updates visit www.mtavalanche.com and click on Forecast, then Subscribe.

Get to know the snow

If you’re not out hiking or snowmobiling into the backcountry any chance you can to catch some untracked snow, you might not think you could benefit from snow safety training. But you’d be wrong – even resort skiers, cross-country skiers and snowshoers accessing public land can gain valuable skills and knowledge from a snow safety course. These in-depth classes often weekend-long experiences that cover everything from types of snow to measuring slope aspects, digging snowpits and much more. BSAFE’s courses are held on the slopes of Big Sky Resort, and others are held around the region. To find a class that works for you, visit www.mtavalanche.com and click on the Education tab. Not into a lengthy instruction? There are also short courses for those hoping to get their feet wet in the topic.

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