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As snowpack grows, avalanche experts advise caution, ski areas begin opening

Ski lift. File photo.
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With a snowy start to November, skiers and snowmobilers have been heading to the backcountry and above-average snowpack levels across much of western Montana have some mountain resorts opening early.

While most avalanche centers aren’t yet rating the current risk, Doug Chabot, the director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center near Bozeman, says backcountry recreationists shouldn’t be complacent, even when the snowpack is thin compared to mid-winter.

“So, we still want to be going with a partner, we want to carry all of our rescue gear, beacon, shovel and probe. None of that changes because it’s early season.”

Meanwhile, in the frontcountry, some ski areas are opening early.

Betsy Moran, co-owner of Great Divide outside of Helena, says they should be able to open up more of the mountain earlier than recent seasons.

“So we’re looking really good for this year, with a base of over 40 inches, and a good possibility of being able to open our upper mountain by the weekend. Which, right after Thanksgiving, we haven’t done that in a long time.”

Doug Chabot adds that anyone heading into the backcountry should check the current conditions and forecasts on the local avalanche center website and brush up on rescue skills before heading out.

Chabot also says those new to the backcountry should sign up for an avalanche course that has field components that teach them to evaluate snowpack and how to rescue a partner buried by an avalanche. He adds that even experienced backcountry enthusiasts should take avalanche refresher courses.

Great Divide, Showdown, Red Lodge and Lookout Pass will be open the 25th-27th.

Discovery will be open the 24th-27th.

Big Sky will open Nov. 23rd.

John joined the Montana Public Radio team in August 2022. Born and raised in Helena, he graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Media Arts and created the Montana history podcast Land Grab. John can be contacted at john.hooks@umt.edu
Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.