Monday, January 9, 2012

The Bitterroot's Five Foot Snowpack

Posted By on Mon, Jan 9, 2012 at 11:42 AM

With the excellent storm of late December, which lay down two to four feet of fresh, and the few snow showers that have pushed through subsequently, the shady terrain has remained fabulously powdery and supportive at elevations above 7,000'.

JL skiing the Crown
  • Jenny Callahan
  • JL skiing the Crown

I was up at the Crown at Little Downing Mountain recently with a couple friends and we skied some excellent snow on east faces. With good light on this gem in the Bitterroots, we had a great photo shoot. Please check the backcountry focus blog for a full download of the photography and videos that day. We found decent stability with no collapsing or settling anymore. I will continue to be concerned about the deep instability after any subsequent additional loading events, but for now, I am only concerned with steep shallow starting zones with convex rolls and wind loading. As we saw from the skier triggered slide at Gash Point on the steep east facing headwall of the east bowl's southern flank where a skier triggered slide occurred last Friday, this avalanche had the required elements of steep, wind loaded and a trigger zone in rocks, and it even released below the convexity.

In the Pacific Northwest it is critical to enjoyable skiing to think like the middle elevations to the tops of the mountains when looking for good skiing. While we may languish in the valley with an open winter with grass and dirt, in the peaks above 5,000 feet elevation, it is full on winter with about an average snowpack of 90%. Once there is enough snow to cover the obstacles, the good skiing is determined by the surface conditions which relate to aspect and the sunshine and wind. Usually good skiing can be found in protected west through north to east facing terrain. Tease out the terrain that holds these nuances of elevation, aspect, and good sloped ski terrain and voila you get a great ski day. Being in tune and doing the little bit of research on remote weather stations, as well as a determination to go backcountry skiing all usually make for a great day in the mountains, rather than one languished in the valley waiting for something like the big storm or beating the moguls and groomers like at a gym. Old powder is generally safer in the backcountry anyway and blue bird days does not mean hardpack like it does as the chairlifts. So get outside and enjoy this beautiful sunny winter with its five foot snowpack. Choose your own ski slopes from the myriad of possibilities and mountain ranges that surround us here in western Montana.

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