Snow on the brain

Checking in with GNFAC 

Big Sky got blanketed over the past week, and while it’s deep out there, the good news is the slopes around us are mostly stable and open for backcountry business.  

The large weekend storm came in with wind, which pushed all the fresh snow and left behind formidable cornices on ridgelines. Doug Chabot and Alex Marienthal of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center rode out to Buck Ridge on Feb. 18, encountering “super-sized” cornices, but zero signs of avalanches or instability—the snowpack below the 16” of new accumulation was stable.

Nonetheless, GNFAC is advising backcountry enthusiasts to steer clear of those monster cornices, wind slabs and fresh drifts. On non-wind loaded slopes, dry, loose avalanches (see photo) are a possibility. 

Deep snowpack = good spring runoff?

The skiing has been great this winter, but a healthy snowpack means much more than good turns. The Montana Natural Resource Conservation Service closely monitors the state’s snowpack since that snow ultimately fuels the spring river runoff, and these levels help to predict fire danger in the warm months. 

The most recent NRCS report states that while this winter’s snowfall, measured since October, isn’t record-breaking, it’s certainly above normal. Percentage wise, the best snowpack in the state as of the beginning of February is found in the Upper Clark Fork (140 percent of normal), Missouri Mainstem near Helena (148 percent), Upper Yellowstone (148 percent) and Gallatin River basins (129 percent).

All of this amounts to good news for water users in the state, but a healthy dose of caution is still warranted. 

“Getting complacent or bragging about snowpack at the beginning of February would be like bragging about leading Daytona halfway through the race,” Lucas Zukiewicz, NRCS water supply specialist for Montana, wrote in the report. “It doesn’t matter where you are halfway through it. It matters where you’re at when it wraps up.”

Snowpack typically peaks across the state during April or May, depending on which region in the state you’re in. The coming months are critical for water supply, and in many basins east of the divide, March, April and May typically provide significant precipitation.

Looking elsewhere

On Monday, Jan. 1, Big Sky Resort reported more than 32” of snow had fallen over a five-day period. The resort’s base stood at 106”. tracks resort base depths around the country, and for the Rocky Mountain region, Whitefish Mountain tops the charts with a 64” lower mountain and 143” upper mountain base depth. Big Sky was fifth on the list. Montana and its resorts dominate the chart, while Colorado and some Utah resorts report less-than-stellar conditions.

The Colorado Springs Independent recently reported on the scarcity of snow there, painting this picture: “Many locals can count the times they’ve scraped their windshield on one hand, and for a disturbingly long stretch, Pikes Peak presided over this city minus its snowy white cap.”


More Information

Lone Peak Lookout

235 Snowy Mtn Circle
Big Sky, MT 59716

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