Posts from October 2011


The Snow Line's Coming Down
Posted October 24, 2011

In many areas of the country the weather tends to vary in a north-south pattern. Go north it gets colder and south is warmer. In the mountains every thing is dependent on elevation. Generally the higher you go the cooler it is.

I've always been fascinated by the prominent snow line that forms in the mountains each fall, winter and spring. Take a look at Ear Mountain as seen from my house this morning.

There is a prominent line of demarcation where the heavy snow ends and "brown town" begins. This line forms where the accumulation of snow equals that lost to melting and evaporation. Above the snow line the mountain is white with deep snow; below it is generally wet after a storm but any snow that fell has already disappeared.

We can also think about the snow line as a battleground between warm and cold. Once the summer warmth has left the countryside the ground at higher elevations cools more than at low elevations. It may be below freezing on the summit of Ear Mountain while on the plains below temperatures may be near 60. This results in a gradation of ground temperature from warm to cold. Snow falls and interacts with the warm ground. The warmer the ground the more snow will melt. And the snow line forms.

Another factor assisting in the formation of the snow line is variation in temperature with altitude. The higher one goes the cooler it usually is. When storms come there is some spot where the precipitation changes from rain to snow. Weather forecasts in mountainous country take this into account by providing the elevation where this phenomena occurs. That way you can guesstimate whether the precipitation at your location will be white or wet.

I live just north of Choteau, Montana at 4,136 feet above sea level. If the forecast calls for heavy snow above 5,000 feet I know I won't have to shovel in the morning but I will be able to head a little higher for some skiing.

The snow line will move up and down throughout the winter. The usual course is for the snow line to start fairly high and creep down the mountainside until even the valleys are covered with snow in the depths of winter. As spring approaches and warmer weather invades the plains the snow line begins to creep up. It gets pretty patchy in June and by the end of July I will only snow a few spots of snow out my window. By the end of August even those are usually gone.

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Into Winter and Back, Three Times
Posted October 18, 2011

Last week I described how winter might be just a day or two away. After making that post Jim and I took a little backpacking trip and found the transition can be much quicker than that!

We began our adventure last Wednesday on a beautiful fall day. The sun was shining and it was warm. A rainbow in front of the mountains, however, indicated we might encounter something a little different.


A rainbow predicts some wet weather on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana.

It was a mix of snow and rain at the trail head at about 6,000 feet. We hiked up about 1,800 feet to Headquarters Pass where it was snowing lightly. A strong cold wind kept most of the snow in motion.


Jim, descended in the snow just after crossing Headquarters Pass at 7,743 feet.

Moving quickly across the pass, we descended about 1,700 feet in seven miles to the North Fork of the Sun River. The ground was bare and plenty of fall color still decorated the vegetation. We camped along the river and enjoyed a fairly warm evening under a full moon.


Gate Lake west of the North Fork of the Sun River in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Our second day featured a 7 mile walk up Red Shale Creek. That stream begins at the Continental Divide and we planned to camp 1,800 feet higher than our first night. Winter began to take over as we approached the head of the valley.

We managed to find a nice camp spot. It was quite a bit colder but we were still warm in our good sleeping bags.

The following morning an elk bugled and his call echoed from the cliffs above camp. After trying to photograph the elk with only partial success, we decided to hike toward Sock Lake, about 500 feet higher on the divide.

Around noon, as we approached the lake, it began to snow. Little fluffy flakes at first. Then a little harder. Visibility began to deteriorate so we headed back to camp. The light snow continued into the evening.

Overnight it rained for several hours pounding a steady beat on the tent. But by 3 am it was quiet. We thought the rain had stopped and the snow of the previous day might be gone.

I woke around four and looked into the vestibule of the tent. Hmmm, the roof was sagging! It did indeed stop raining! It was quiet in our tent because it was now covered in new snow. Snow, the heavy wet variety had replaced the rain. We shook the ceiling of the tent to get the snow to slide off and went back to sleep.

Daylight came slowly and the snow was still falling lightly. Our plan for the day was to hike back down Red Shale Creek. Leaving camp it was definitely winter.


I'm leaving camp on our fourth day. Inset: Our tent. Photos by Jim Utsler.

But once again, as we descended the valley, we returned to fall. The sky cleared and the sun felt very good.


Once more down by the North Fork of the Sun River. Evening light casts a warm glow across the marsh.

Our last night we featured a deep freeze. This made for a slow start in the morning. My frozen boots didn't feel very good on my feet. It took a couple of miles of hiking before my toes came back to life. As the trail miles slipped past we approached winter one more time. We had to traverse Headquarters Pass before reaching our trailhead. And once more we climbed into winter, only to descend back into fall.


I'm punching through the snow heading back up to Headquarters Pass.. Photo by Jim Utsler.

This trek was a challenge. But it provided a chance for me to get right with winter. I know the cold will come. I'm looking forward to the change of seasons. And I'm really looking forward to getting on my skis again.

During our five days we saw only one other person on the trails. And we didn't see him until within 90 minutes of the trailhead. We saw that big bull elk below Sock Lake but no other large animals came into view.

But we were not alone. The trails were filled with tracks. Elk, moose, deer and bears, both grizzly and black, were on the move. We knew the bears were close at times by the freshness of the tracks. But we saw no bears.


Grizzly Tracks and a boot print. The left track is a fore foot and the right track a hind foot.
Superimposed on the hind foot is the track of my size 13 boot.

Winter - Always Just a Day or Two Away
Posted October 10, 2011

Family and friends visiting me for the first time here in Montana usually ask what type of clothing they should bring? Or what will the weather be like?

The answer, even in summer, is, "Remember, winter is always a day or two away!"

Spring is our wettest season. Summer can be quite warm and is usually dry and sunny. There may be a cool and wet period in August or early September but that usually doesn't last long and fall is usually dry and warm as well. Winter, well winter is winter and that can mean anything.

The thing is though, that we can have winter weather at any time. Locals will remind you that in the 1990s it snowed on the Fourth of July Parade. In August 2003 the highway department had plows and sanding trucks on US 2 over Marias Pass and our biggest snow storms seem to come in May and June.

In late September Jim and I completed an 8 day backpack in the Bob Marshall Wilderness west of Choteau, Montana. Our goal was to visit and photograph the Chinese Wall, a 1,000 foot high escarpment that extends unbroken for over 12 miles. Our trip began in warm sunny and dry conditions. In fact it was so dry that the trail was very dusty. I had to stay some distance behind Jim to avoid the dust he stirred up. Our third day featured some drizzle. Our fourth day was white!


The Chinese Wall is hidden by the snow. Photo by Jim Utsler.

We had rain overnight but managed to enjoy breakfast and get our gear packed up while it was dry. Then the storm moved in. It started with a flash of lightning and heavy rain. Within minutes the rain turned to snow and everything turned white.


A beautiful day! Photo by Jim Utsler.

We had about 5 miles to cover before our next camp. It didn't take long for us to get the idea that winter had come. Fortunately we were prepared with warm clothes, a good tent and sleeping bags dry in waterproof stuffsacks. The snow lasted most of the day. In late afternoon the temps had warmed some and the snow began melting off the trees. Clearing sky the following night brought the temps down to the teens and set the stage for some great photographs the following morning.


The Chinese Wall the morning after the snow and cold..

This little sojourn into winter got my juices flowing. Summer was now officially over and it was fall. Real winter won't be far way.

Here we Go Again!
Welcome Back
for the Eighth Year of
Ralph's Blog
(formerly Ralph's Nordic Web)!
Posted October 3, 2011

Looking back at my last post of last season, I realize I was a little off with my prediction. I was right is saying spring was a slow process this year but I didn't really realize how slow it would be. The weather was quite cold through most of June. Snow melted only slowly from the mountains and occasional snowstorms added to the snowpack. Flooding was a big problem on the plains and the deep mountain snowpack prevented hikers from reaching the high country until late July and August. Folks were still skiing at places like Logan Pass in Glacier National Park well into August!

While there is still some summer/fall type fun still to be had in Montana right now, the weather has begun to change. The aspens are golden and geese are heading south. I'm looking forward to another great winter of skiing fun.

But before the snow flies I'll try to get in some late season alpine fun in addition to preparing for another season of skiing. I'll show you my experience with the first big snow of this season next week.

In the meantime welcome back. Let's get ready for winter!