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High avalanche danger, experts warn against skiing in back country

By Grace Ditzler, KTVM Reporter, gditzler@ktvm.com
Published On: Mar 11 2014 10:58:10 PM MDT
BOZEMAN, Mont. -

Avalanche experts in the Bozeman area issued a warning to back country skiers and snow mobilers on Wednesday, saying none of the local mountain ranges are currently safe.

Avalanche danger has been raised to "high" in the Bridger, Gallatin and Madison mountain ranges, the Lionhead area near West Yellowstone, and Cooke City, north of Yellowstone National Park.

The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center said these conditions will lead to avalanches.

Some higher elevation locations received close to two feet of new snow.

While warmer weather can make for more enjoyable skiing, it can also create dangerous conditions in the back country, as rapidly changing temperatures make the snow pack more unpredictable.

Roundhouse Ski and Sports Center manager Ryan Merkel showed NBC Montana the necessary gear for skiing in the back country, gear that can help keep people safe, especially when the snow pack gets unstable.

"Skiing in the spring time," Merkel said, "the snow conditions change a lot with the rotting snow base."

He said spring time skiing can be some of the best skiing, but said it's important to know the risks.

"The conditions are incredibly unstable at this time of year with the warmer weather, the rain, the wet heavy snow," he said.

Avalanche experts said we are starting to see these conditions already.

On Tuesday, the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center issued a high avalanche warning after a snow storm dropped more than 20 inches in the mountains.

"It's very dangerous in the back country," said avalanche expert Mark Staples. He explained as the weather warms up, two conflicting things happen. First, "warming temperatures overall are going to help settle the snow and the snow pack will get stronger."

But he added, the surface of the snow will start to melt, creating wet avalanches, and these drastically changing conditions mean it's essential for skiers to know the avalanche danger before heading out.

"People need to be very aware of the conditions they're getting into when they're skiing in the back country," said Merkel.

The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center recommends that no one go into the back country while avalanche danger is high.

Here's how to recognize instability in wet snow:

The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center said the surface of the snow will get more wet throughout the day. You will see pinwheels, snowballs that roll down the hill and gain in size, and you can see small wet slides, that will grow in size throughout the day.