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Backcountry hazards heightened with spring temps and heavy traffic

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Fresh turns are just one of the allures of skiing and riding in the backcountry. During trying times, recreating in the outdoors can have tremendous benefits on both mental and physical health. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

By Bella Butler EBS EDITORIAL ASSISTANT

After the recent closures of Bridger Bowl and Big Sky Resort due to COVID-19 concerns, many skiers and boarders weren’t ready to relinquish turns yet to be had in the still-snowy mountains of southwest Montana.

With lifts retired for the season, skiers, boarders and snowmobilers have taken to the backcountry in pursuit of the tail-end of a season cut short. Recreating outside can offer invaluable benefits during trying times such as mood-boosting elevated serotonin and endorphin levels. However, those getting out in the backcountry are no longer in controlled terrain and are more vulnerable to a number of hazards.

To Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, more traffic in the backcountry means more triggers. According to the National Avalanche Center, over 90 percent of avalanche accidents were triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party. With people being the predominant initiators of avalanches, greater numbers of people amount to increased risk.

Backcountry skiers dig a snow pit and test snowpack stability on a west-facing aspect at Beehive Basin. Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center advises backcountry travelers to continue to take necessary precautions, even as sunny spring days offer a false sense of security. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

Chabot warns that in busier locations, such as Bridger Bowl and Beehive Basin, people should consider not only the threat they pose to themselves but also to those around them. “The danger exists not only for the people that would trigger and get caught, but if it’s crowded, we’re now putting other people at risk because there might be people underneath us.”

This time of year, it is especially critical to take necessary precautions in the backcountry as the snowpack transitions from winter to spring conditions, a trend GNFAC forecasters are already taking note of. Chabot says that a wet snowpack is a weak snowpack, a reality that grows more prevalent as the sun rises higher in the sky and reaches the surface of the snow in greater concentration.

“We are seeing some smaller wet avalanches, but we are warning people that as the temperatures get warmer, if they are sinking into wet snow, it’s time to go elsewhere,” Chabot said.

Other threats particularly partial to the warming season are cornices. While the big overhangs of snow are dangerous throughout the entire year, they reach an ominous phase in the spring after building up all season and weakening with the warming temperatures. According to Chabot, new backcountry travelers have a tendency to underestimate how far back a cornice’s breaking point extends. This is a hazard that demands acute attention and consideration so as not to send a bomb-like cascade of snow down on others, Chabot said.

The skin track at popular backcountry locations such as Beehive Basin show shines of frequent use, especially since traffic from closed ski resorts has moved into the backcountry. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER
A backcountry skier breaks trail through fresh snow at Beehive Basin. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

Spring conditions play a mentally deceiving game, as well. “We tend to equate snow stability with our feelings. ‘It feelsgood, it’s such a beautiful day,’” Chabot said, having observed the pattern of eager snow sportsmen and woman each year. “Well, the snowpack doesn’t care.”

During this time of changing conditions and heavier backcountry traffic, it remains as essential as ever to retain best practices when moving through uncontrolled terrain. Chabot emphasizes the continued importance of reading the advisory, carrying rescue gear, going with partners and using the GNFAC as a resource.

“We’re here to help [backcountry travelers] make good decisions,” Chabot said.

For more information and to check the avalanche advisory, visit mtavalanche.com or call the advisory phone at (406)-587-6981.

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