The dry, brown valley bottoms that the Flathead has seen for most of this winter have brought discouragement and frustration to skiers, snowmobilers and other winter recreationists.
But Blase Reardon, lead forecaster with the Flathead Valley Avalanche Center, says the absence of snow in town is not representative of what the mountains above 6,000 feet are seeing.
“It’s hard to picture when you’re in the valley, but above 6,000 feet the snowpack is definitely above average for this time of year,” Reardon said.
Heading up Marias Pass at the Flattop SNOTEL site, which sits at 6,300 feet, the snow depth read 89 inches on Monday, Jan. 6. That’s considerably deeper than the previous year, which was 67 inches on the same day in 2019.
But with a surprisingly deep snowpack in high elevations in combination with sporadic weather systems, including rain, snow and high winds, forecasters are describing the snowpack as complicated.
“I see a very schizophrenic snowpack,” Reardon said.
Reardon says one area of concern is central Glacier National Park, where the higher peaks and excess wind loading have resulted in wide propagations and reactivity. This could cause potential for large avalanches, Reardon said, although forecasters acknowledge uncertainty in that area.
“We don’t have a ton of information from that area,” he said. “It could just be our uncertainty.”
The crest of the Flathead Range is another less certain area, which Reardon says has the same problem as Glacier. Since the Flathead is steeper and colder than surrounding ranges, it harbors weaker snowpack layers, Reardon said.
A “Christmas Eve crust” formed at the end of December with “high freezing levels” followed by a warm sunny day, creating a weak layer, according to a post on flatheadavalanche.org. This “melt-freeze” event created a sliding surface and allowed weak snow to develop above it, resulting in a higher potential for avalanches, Reardon said.
While there are some areas of uncertainty, recent and consistent precipitation that’s fallen in the last few weeks has also created a consolidated snowpack without weak layers, Reardon said.
While the current forecast conditions are labeled “moderate danger” as of Jan. 6, Reardon says the predicted snowfall in coming days will likely change that.
“I expect conditions to become more dangerous tomorrow,” Reardon said on Monday.
With a sustained snowfall and high winds forecasted this week, Reardon expects a new storm slab and wind loading to stress the current snowpack, causing more reactive and thicker slabs.
According to the National Weather Service, elevations over 6,000 feet in the mountains across the Flathead could see feet of snow this week, with winds gusting to 50 miles per hour.
“It’s easy to get excited about new snow, but when it combines to create dangerous conditions, those are when conditions are very dangerous and potentially lethal,” Reardon said.
Two snowmobilers were killed on New Year’s Day south of the Flathead’s avalanche area following an avalanche near Seeley Lake after a recent and significant storm dropped heavy, wet snow on an already unstable snowpack, according to Missoula Avalanche.
Reardon reminds backcountry recreationists to always wear an avalanche beacon, carry a shovel and probe for avalanche rescue and pay attention to the avalanche forecast.
As conditions change, Reardon reminds backcountry travelers to practice a conservative mindset. This includes staying in lower-angle terrain and out of slide path zones.
“Even small slopes can produce those conditions,” he said.
Staying out of harm’s way is an essential rule, Reardon said. Going one at a time reduces the probability of triggering slides and also makes it easier to keep track of people if a slide is triggered.
“Get the gear and wear the gear,” Reardon said. “It can make the difference between a good story and a tragic story.”
For more information and to see the most updated avalanche forecast, visit www.flatheadavalanche.org.
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