The first snowfall of the season has already brought skiers and snowboarders back to the slopes of Bridger Bowl. The shallow snowpack makes it easy enough to simply hike up, right below the chairlift, without skins or snowshoes. However, in the midst of early season excitement, many often forget that any hill with enough snow to ski has enough snow to slide.

The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (GNFAC) issued its first report of the season on Wednesday, Oct.14, and has since issued reports intermittently with every new storm and change in conditions. 

“Our biggest concerns for early season, snowpack wise, are slopes that have been wind drifted,” said GNFAC forecaster Ian Hoyer. “That’s where there’s enough snow to be thinking about skiing or riding, but that’s also what’s most likely to avalanche this time of year.”

Reports from skiers and riders witnessing and even triggering avalanches have already been called in, though most have been small and none so far have caused any accidents. The early season snowpack can prove to be fatal for some backcountry travelers  (incident reports can be found at mtavalanche.org).

However, the shallow snowpack also creates unseen obstacles under the snow surface. On Monday, Oct. 19, a skier in Canada died from trauma after hitting rocks buried beneath the snow, tumbling down a drainage ditch just below the Robertson Glacier in western Alberta. 

“Regardless of it being early season, we want to emphasize that everyone has their beacon, shovel and probe and knows how to use them if they’re going to be going into the backcountry onto snowy slopes,” Hoyer said.

Some forecasters at the GNFAC, like Hoyer, teach classes through ASMSU for students to learn how to use proper equipment and how to safely read and travel through avalanche terrain. ASMSU offers two classes annually, one in December and then another in January—both of which will be offered online this year. The course includes two evening classes and one full day on the mountain practicing and learning important skills for $75 (students can register for these courses at montana.edu/outdoorrecreation, under “experiential education”).

However, the importance of avalanche education pertains to more than just skiers and snowboarders. The GNFAC encourages anyone who travels through the backcountry to learn about avalanches, including ice climbers, snowshoers, snowmobilers and the like. Especially during this time of year, many different kinds of recreationists can find themselves in avalanche terrain.

When asked if the current snowpack could create issues later on in the season, Hoyer stated that, “it’s really hard to tell at this point, but early season snow is not a great sign, especially now that we’re having a period with no snow and warmer temperatures. All of the early season snow has the potential to get weaker, so the longer we have a shallow snowpack the more nervous I get. But anything could happen.”

The GNFAC has committed to continuing its service to the Bozeman area even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the usual fundraisers like the annual Powder Blast could not be held in person, though anyone can still donate to the event virtually through the Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center’s gofundme (link available on mtavalanche.com) As of Sunday, Nov. 1, they have raised 75% of their $80,000 goal.

Full reports and forecasts with current avalanche conditions can be found throughout the season at mtavalanche.com. Reports and forecasts will be available daily once the winter begins to show consistent snowfall. 

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