HAMILTON – So far this winter, the snowpack in the Bitterroot Mountains is pretty close to average, but that could change in a big way over the next week.
On Thursday, Bitterroot National Forest hydrologist Ed Snook took his first weekly ski tour to check the condition of the snowpack on the Stateline Ridge just north of Lost Trail Powder Mountain ski area.
At 8,100 feet, he found relatively stable snow that in many places was hard enough to walk on.
“It’s really a pretty classical snowpack so far,” Snook said. “The avalanche danger is low now because we haven’t seen any large amounts of precipitation over the last couple of weeks.”
Snook said he and his partner were able to trigger some instability deep in the snowpack, but it took a lot of pounding to make that happen.
The 40 to 45 inches he found on the lee slopes were mostly settled with a little bit of loose snow on top.
“It actually skis quite well,” he said. “It is a little deceptive when you see the amount of beargrass flowers sticking up through the top of the snowpack. It was a good year for beargrass last summer.”
The unusually warm weather valley locations experienced so far this winter is also deceptive when it comes to creating snowpack in the mountains.
“There’s been quite a bit of difference in temperatures between the valley and up high,” Snook said. “The storms that we’ve been getting lately have brought fairly warm air for the valleys and so there hasn’t been a lot of snow in the valley.”
Snow measuring sites in the mountains show levels to be a little above average right now.
That could change in a hurry this weekend with the arrival of a substantial wet weather pattern that could bring as much as 3 inches of water in the mountains and an inch in the valley, Snook said.
“Two or three inches in the high country would bump us up well over average,” he said.
Three inches of moisture equates to about 30 inches of snow.
“If the snow does start coming down that fast, the avalanche danger will change quite quickly,” Snook said. “The worst periods of hazard will be during the storm and immediately afterward.”
People can check the West Central Montana Avalanche Center website at missoulaavalanche.org for additional information.
With the long-range forecast calling for a mild winter with less than average precipitation and higher than average temperatures, Snook said any storm that bucks that trend is a good thing.
“I think this is going to be a really good week to cover your firewood,” he said. “It may be very wet around the valley.”