Make smart choices in the backcountry

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Powder-hounds are rejoicing this week after Old Man Winter’s long-awaited arrival in Northwest Montana. While it may be sloppy and suspiciously spring-like in the valley, area mountains are getting pummeled with deep, fluffy snow that has snowmobilers, skiers and snowboarders salivating.

But before heading out the door in search of snowy solitude, backcountry users should heed warnings from our local avalanche experts.

The Flathead Avalanche Center on Wednesday rated the avalanche danger as “high” for the upper elevations of the Flathead Range and Glacier National Park. Numerous natural and triggered avalanches were observed in the backcountry following Tuesday’s winter wallop, creating very dangerous avalanche conditions.

“Snowpacks hate rapid change, and avalanche activity yesterday shows how grumpy the mountains have become,” avalanche forecaster Clancy Nelson wrote in the daily advisory Wednesday.

One recent slide, the center reported, buried a backcountry road and covered snowmobilers’ tracks from the day. Other riders triggered slides remotely, “highlighting the danger of buried weak layers” in the snowpack, Nelson warned.

These backcountry travelers made it home safely, but others haven’t been so lucky.

Two snowmobilers were killed in a New Year’s Day avalanche in the Mission Mountains. Then on Wednesday, another terrible tragedy struck when a series of avalanches killed two skiers and injured five others at Silver Mountain in Idaho.

Dangerous conditions are expected to persist this week as even more snow enters the region. Folks planning to head into the backcountry need to be prepared with appropriate gear, and should check the avalanche forecast before heading out.

“Exercise self-discipline and keep your terrain choices conservative,” Nelson warned.

That’s good advice.

And if conditions aren’t within the group’s comfort zone, there’s no shame in taking a “rain check” and living to ride again another day.

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