Mountain High 

A massive avalanche last Friday in Utah’s Provo Canyon carried three parties comprised of 14 snowboarders down the mountain in North America’s deadliest avalanche yet this year. Analysts believe the slide was triggered naturally, and not by the riders themselves. Apparently a heavy, unstable snow mass above the group failed, gaining momentum and sweeping the boarders downhill. According to the peerless Canadian Avalanche Association (http://www.avalanche.ca), only 8 percent of reported slides are initiated by such “natural” causes—most are provoked by humans weighting a ready-to-go snowpack. All but three of the riders survived, extricating themselves shortly after the slide came to a rest.

Like 80 percent of avalanche victims in North America, all of the snowboarders were male, and all were between the ages of 18 and 20. None carried a transceiver, probe or shovel. One survivor was hit by two subsequent slides, the third burying him up to his neck.

They were riding off-piste, in observably dangerous conditions that continued to load snow onto slopes above the site well after the initial slide occurred.

When the weather cleared, crews detonated suspect nearby slopes to prevent rescuers from being buried as they probed for bodies in the 800’-wide, 400’-long and 14’-deep slide path. Even by the standards of a state whose license plate claims “The Greatest Snow on Earth,” the storm was big, and authorities say it was at least partially to blame for causing 1,300 highway accidents and leaving 60,000 people without power. Some areas of the Wasatch received 60 inches of snow that day.

That same day, Bridger Bowl was overwhelmed with 56 inches of snow, forcing them to—get this—close the mountain. We’re not having that, uh, problem here in Western Montana, but we do have some fine snow, and as of press time backcountry conditions near Missoula are, generally speaking, both deep and stable. But don’t take my word for it, dig pits regularly and consult the West Central Montana Snow Rangers before heading out at http://www.fs.fed.us/r1/lolo/avalanche/advisory.htm.

But if burial stories have you eager to reduce your risk, don’t worry: the best of patrolled powder can be yours, and this time the price is right. Bridger Bowl (80+ inches since Christmas and counting) is celebrating its birthday on Jan. 9 with $10 tickets, and then they’re doing it again a week later—but you must bring the previous Friday’s birthday lift ticket with you for another $10 deal.

But first, young bucks, take advantage of the avalanche lectures at the University Center on Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. Sponsored by the West Central Montana Avalanche Advisory and the UM Outdoor Program, they’ll cover the basics on how to keep your hide away from the Big White Slide. While it’s no substitute for a full-on workshop, if you’re new to the backcountry game the seminar can help you travel Montana’s winter wonderland in a sustainable fashion. Call 243-5172 for the lowdown.

The Rocky Mountaineers will head to UM’s Lubrecht Forest on Jan. 4, providing a carpool for skiers, snowshoers and winter hikers looking to explore the trails either solo or in small groups. Call Steve Schombel at 721-4686 to get on board.

If chairlift eyes are watching you and you find it annoying, join the New Rocky Mountaineers on Jan. 3 and 4 for an overnight ski/snowshoe trip up, up, up toward the Mission’s East St. Mary’s Peak (9,425 feet.)

The likelihood of an unforgettable adventure is great: either you’ll witness the stunning, austere beauty of the high Missions in winter lit by an almost-full moon, or you’ll be tent-bound and battered by a January storm at 8,000 feet. Come morning, an exquisite array of alpine touring and adrenaline options will avail themselves in all flavors. This can be a 1,2, or 3-day trip, so call platoon leader Gerald Olbu at 549-4769 to seize this high and mighty opportunity.

Senior skiers should consider “Senior Wednesdays” at Big Mountain, where from now through March the seasoned among us can score a lift ticket, ski demos, lessons and other goodies for only $32. Skiers still on their first set of knees should hit up the Big’s “Big Nights,” where $14 gets you your choice of night skiing, NASTAR racing, tubing and sledding from 4:30 to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights through mid-March. (Insider tip: buy a 12-pack of Pepsi at select Town Pump stores to get two-for-one Big Night coupons.)

A Mountain High reader points out that although Big Mountain claims to be 100 percent open, it’s not—an area serviced by the Bigfoot T Bar is closed on weekdays. “You can’t find out about this until after you’ve purchased a $49 non-refundable ticket,” writes the disgruntled patron. But with 9 fresh inches covering the 59-inch summit base, there should be plenty of powder to go around.

Hot on the heels of a Ski Magazine cover story, Montana Snowbowl is claiming five inches of fresh on a 54-inch base, with many Missoulians raving about “the best December in years.” And Discovery Basin has finally started receiving its fair share, with a couple of fresh inches bringing the summit total to 44.

Lost Trail has added 9 inches to its already healthy base, but that’s still not enough to open the long cruisers available off the wind-swept Chair 4. Blacktail Mountain has received 5 inches overnight, adding cushion to their four-foot base, and the Idaho resorts of Lookout Pass and Silver Mountain have 90 inches and 56 inches on their respective summits.
Send your outdoor schedule to jmahan@missoulanews.com

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