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

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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," Chabot said. "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.

“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," she said, "which, right after Thanksgiving, we haven’t done that in a long time.”

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.

Copyright 2022 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.