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Early season snow puts avalanche experts on alert

By Katherine Mozzone, KTVM Reporter, kmozzone@ktvm.com
Published On: Oct 18 2013 07:22:06 PM MDT
Updated On: Oct 18 2013 08:55:55 PM MDT
BOZEMAN, Mont. -

Avalanche specialists at the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center say now is the time to really start paying attention to the snowpack.

Just as more skiers are return to the backcountry, government employee Eric Knoff just returned to work after the shutdown, but not before doing a little skiing of his own while he was away.

"I don't remember skiing on October 14th before. I think that might be one of the earlier times I personally have been skiing," says Knoff.

Knoff showed NBC Montana photos from his Tuesday trip to the Fairy Lake area. He tells us it's not unusual to get snowstorms in October but it is unusual to have such consistent snowfall like we've seen the last couple of weeks.

"If the weather stays cold and dry, the existing snowpack will be subjected to strong temperature gradients and that tends to weaken or fact the existing snow," explains Knoff.

Knoff broke down what that temperature gradient might look like.

"If the air temperature is zero degrees on the snow's surface and the ground is always 32, if the snowpack is only a foot deep, we have a 32-degree temperature gradient just in that one foot of snow," Knoff explains.

But if it keeps snowing, Knoff tells us the snow won't be subjected to those strong temperature gradients.

"It typically will form a strong, solid base for the rest of the winter," says Knoff.

For now, he says all they can do is wait to see what happens. In the meantime, Knoff says those venturing into the backcountry should treat every trip like it's the middle of winter.

"Always carry your rescue gear, always be watching each other from a safe spot, never be putting multiple people on the same slope at one time. Even a small avalanche can have large consequences, especially in a shallow snowpack like this because it can carry you into rocks or trees and inflict serious injury," Knoff says.

Knoff says current avalanche conditions are not widespread but there are isolated areas of instability in upper elevation terrain where the wind has loaded slopes.

If the snowpack weakens, however, and we get more snow, he says we could see avalanche danger rise rapidly.

Last year the first avalanche in the Bozeman area occurred October 28.