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White out

This 2-foot deep natural avalanche was observed on March 30 in the Cooke City area, indicating fresh slabs were unstable and larger wind-loaded slopes should be avoided for a few days. 


Snow came early this winter for the Bozeman-based Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center’s staff. It also came heavy and has stayed late.

“It’s still happening,” said Doug Chabot, GNFAC director, on Friday as mountain snowpack built by another 6 to 30 inches. “This is the first avalanche warning we’ve ever issued in April.”

The avalanche forecasting season in southwestern Montana is officially over for the center, but the heavy storm on Thursday night prompted a late warning for skiers, snowmobilers and other outdoor recreationists on Friday to use caution while traveling in the mountains.

The late warning seemed fitting considering that this was the biggest snow year for the center since 1996-97, thanks to heavy snowfall in the Cooke City area that saw the snowpack build to epic proportions.

It began with a foot of snow Sept. 16, prompting the earliest avalanche information bulletin by the center in 28 years of operation. By Feb. 4 the Fisher Creek snow reporting site outside of Cooke City was recording 35 inches of snow water equivalent. By this week it had hit 56 inches, breaking a record set in 1971.

“We would rather have snow than not have snow, recreation- and water-wise,” Chabot said. “We had a lot of frequent snowstorms, which inhibits weak layers. We got off a little easy on that end.”

More often, winter weather will include a week of cold, clear days that build facets atop the snowpack. Once those are buried under new snow they create weak layers, almost like burying ball bearings. That didn’t happen this year. Instead, avalanche warnings this year were related to heavy new snowfall and huge cornices that built atop ridges with strong, steady winds.

Even with the more stable snow layers, one skier (Oct. 7) and one snowmobiler (Jan. 2) died while recreating in the Madison Mountains south of Bozeman.

“Fifty-one avalanche incidents (about average) were reported in our forecast area that resulted in 17 caught, three injuries, nine partial burials, two full burials and two deaths,” Chabot wrote in the center’s end-of-the-year summary. “Nationally, there are 21 fatalities so far this season, well under the 10-year average of 27.”

No snowmobiler has died in the Cooke City area for two years, a place that traditionally has been the most dangerous area in the West for such riders. That may be in part due to the center’s avalanche education classes — conducted with help from the Friends of the Avalanche Center — that have been held in the town for the past two years, as well as education efforts across the GNFAC’s reporting area.

Together the center and friends taught 134 classes to 5,300 people. Of that total, 850 were elementary and secondary students and 960 were snowmobilers.

“Demand is not letting up,” Chabot said. “Bozeman and the valley are continuing to grow. As our population keeps growing our job is to keep growing with it.”

The avalanche center is also targeting freshmen at Montana State University and side-country skiers and snowboarders, those who venture outside of ski area boundaries.

To conduct all those courses, as well as visit avalanche areas to provide forecasts, the three-person center staff drove more than 13,500 miles and racked up another 1,200 miles on each snowmobile. That’s a lot of driving time, which prompted the staff to record and post a couple of dashboard video discussions.

“People love videos,” Chabot said. “I love them. It’s an easy, effective way to reach people.”

Almost 40 percent of the center’s funding comes from outside the Forest Service, with the Friends of the Avalanche Center and a grant from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks filling the gap. Two upcoming events also provide an opportunity for recreationists to help out: the May 3-4 Give Big online fundraising campaign and the May 19 second annual Sled Fest in Cooke City.