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Avalanche warnings in effect for Western Montana backcountry

Mountain Snow
Posted at 5:21 PM, Jan 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-13 19:40:55-05

MISSOULA — The Flathead and West-Central Montana avalanche centers have both issued a warning for the backcountry, listing avalanche danger as high.

A powerful and very wet Pacific weather system has been the catalyst for multiple avalanche warnings across western Montana.

Flathead Avalanche Center Avalanche Specialist Clancy Nelson says weather conditions have led to dangerous conditions in northwest Montana.

“We got rapid loading since yesterday morning with over two inches of water at a lot of our weather stations. Snowpacks are really bad at adapting to rapid change.”

Incredibly strong winds have only exacerbated the problem. The rapid loading of snow caused by fast-moving winds can create problems much quicker than when it falls from above.

“We’re seeing, you know, sustained winds of 70 to 90 miles per hour. Whenever you can transport snow and cause a snowdrift on top of a very weak layer, it’s also a terrible, terrible situation,” National Weather Service meteorologist Leeann Allegretto said.

The storm system moving through is only part of the story. The long dry periods between storms we’ve seen this winter have led to loosely-structured snow crystals from previous storms, leading to weak layers of snow beneath the surface, bringing a higher avalanche potential.

“Think of it kind of like there are spaces in between, they’re easy to crunch, so if you put a bunch of heavy, wet snow or just heavy snow in general on top of that, it’s going to crunch and slide,” Allegretto explained. “It’s a couple of feet deep which makes the slab that could slide even worse.”

The combination of these factors and others has created a recipe for disaster for those braving the backcountry.

Nelson is strongly advising against any backcountry activities. However, if you find yourself there anyway, he says take as many precautions as possible.

“It’s important to know where you are, where you’re going and what’s around you,” Nelson advised. “You know they always need to have the appropriate rescue equipment. A shovel, a beacon, a probe at the bare minimum, and just as important as that is getting the training to know how to use them.”

Both the Flathead Avalanche Center and the Missoula Avalanche Center have important information on their websites -- including updated avalanche watches and warnings and avalanche safety.

The avalanche warning for northwest Montana is scheduled to end at midnight and the warning for west-central Montana is set to end at 7 p.m.