9 Awe-Inspiring Snowflakes Found on the Ski Slopes

Awe-Inspiring Snowflake in Big SkyBy Corinne Garcia

With more than 400 inches of snow annually in Big Sky, Montana, the flakes of snow that fall all around us on a winter day are often overlooked. It’s hard to imagine how many of these little flakes it takes to cover the landscape or provide one of the many powder days on the slopes of Big Sky Resort.

Made up of a number of snow crystals that have bonded together, not all snowflakes are the six-sided, symmetrical image we may have in our heads. Many are actually shaped like needles, columns, or plates. Because so many factors are involved in shaping a snowflake, including temperature, humidity levels, the length of time spent in the air, the melding into other snow crystals, it is impossible for two snowflakes to ever be identical.

A classification system was put in place by the International Commission on Snow and Ice in 1951, designed to help categorize individual snowflakes. Since that time, and as the field of snow science has emerged and evolved, many other researchers have developed their own classification systems. However, the original guidelines are useful for gaining a general understanding of the different types of snowflakes and how their bonding directly affects the type of snow we will ski on during a particular day in Big Sky.

Basic Snowflake Form
Sectored Plates: The plate-like arms of these crystals are divided into sectors. These are thin, flat flakes that come in a variety of shapes.

Stellar Dendrites: Named for their branched form, (dendrite means “tree-like”), these flat crystals usually have six symmetrical main branches and many other side branches.

Spatial Dendrites: These are not flat crystals, but jumbles of many individual ice branches joined together at random.

Capped Columns: These little columns are capped at the top and bottom.

Hollow Columns: Many snowfalls are comprised largely of these hollow, hexagonal columns.

Needles: These crystals are similar to hollow columns, but are more slender and long.

Rimed Crystals: Water droplets that freeze onto a snow crystal are called “rime.” Crystals pick up rime from the water-filled clouds in which they are formed. Some snowflakes are nothing more than balls of rime, which really makes them soft hail.

Irregular Crystals: Some snowflakes get beat up on their journey from turbulent clouds to earth, and arrive broken or otherwise altered. Warm snowfalls are often comprised of the most irregular snowflakes, especially if it is windy.

Other Frozen Precipitation: Aside from snowflakes, many researchers classify three other types of frozen precipitation as graupel, ice pellets, and hail.

Snowflakes and Snow Layers
Together, the different snowflakes form a snowpack, or a layer. Newly fallen snow takes some time to develop into that particular layer, and after each big dump, a new layer is added on to the older ones. The structure of snowpack is a strong indicator of avalanche danger, and the reason many snow experts dig snow pits to determine if there are any weak layers. A weak layer is usually unstable because of a particular type of snow, grain size, or temperature, among other factors. If enough snow is loaded on a weak layer, and other contributing factors in a particular area also add up, such as the steepness of terrain, weather, and the snow load, an avalanche is more likely to occur.

So, the next time you are cruising the slopes of Big Sky Resort, with snow flying overhead, consider the miraculous beauty of these minuscule creations that drop from the sky each winter, and the impact they can have when piled up together.

Nordic Skiing in Southwest Montana

Nordic Skiing in Big SkyThe long Montana winters would be far more difficult to endure if it weren’t for the myriad of outdoor opportunities we have in the Greater Yellowstone area: downhill skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, Yellowstone National Park visits, and, of course, Nordic skiing. Whether you are a skate skier looking for well groomed trails or a classic skier looking to explore the backcountry, you can find it all within a short drive from your Big Sky home base.

Here are some spectacular Nordic ski options in and near the Big Sky area:

Lone Mountain Ranch: Big Sky
Right in the heart of Big Sky, Montana, we are lucky to have Lone Mountain Ranch, a private guest ranch and cross country ski area that has been rated as the number one Nordic Center in North America. With over 85 kilometers of groomed ski trails, there are miles of scenic loops that are perfect for skate skiing and classic skiing for all ability levels. The ranch uses top-of-the-line grooming equipment and trails are maintained regularly. They offer rental equipment and PSIA certified ski instruction. Lone Mountain Ranch is a guest ranch with all-inclusive lodging/dining/ski packages, but daily and season ski passes are available to the public. Contact Information: (800) 514-4655, http://www.lmranch.com.

Rendezvous Ski Trails: West Yellowstone
The 35 kilometers of ski trails at Rendezvous, winding through lodge pole pines and open meadows, are on U.S. Forest Service land and maintained under their own program with area sponsors and partners. Trail prices vary depending on the time of year, from November through March. With consistent snow conditions in West Yellowstone, Rendezvous has hosted many Nordic events and is a popular spot for biathlon training. For more information, see http://www.rendezvousskitrails.com.

Bohart Ranch: 16 miles northeast of Bozeman
Bohart Ranch Cross Country Ski Center is located up Bridger Canyon, just outside of Bozeman. They offer 25 kilometers of ski terrain winding through beautiful Forest Service land, with skiing for all abilities. Using the latest equipment, the trails are groomed for classic and skate skiing. Bohart also features snowshoe trails and hosts many national level Nordic ski events. They also offer ski rentals and instruction and are open November through April. Contact Information: (406) 586-9070, www.bohartranchxcski.com.

Yellowstone National Park:
Yellowstone has a variety of Nordic ski options that take you through the Park’s splendid scenery and abundant wildlife. To get deep into the park, a snowcoach ride is available, but some roads are plowed in the winter to access ski trails on the outer edge of the park. Mammoth and West Yellowstone are both good base camps for ski trips, and rental shops can guide you to trails that are appropriate for any level of experience. For more information, call Xanterra at (866) GEYSERLAND, or go to http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/skiyell.htm.

Backcountry Nordic Skiing:
To break your own trail through the beautiful and quiet Montana landscape, try cross county skiing on one of the many Forest Service trails in the area. There are a variety of trailheads up the Gallatin Canyon off Highway 191, including Spanish Creek, Porcupine, Swan Creek and Moose Creek Road. If you do decide to ski the backcountry, it is a good idea to ski with a partner and to bring an avalanche beacon and shovel. For more information about Big Sky area trails, talk to the experts at one of the many area ski and outdoors shops.

Big Sky Dogsled Adventures in Big Sky & Yellowstone Park

blog_dogsleddingImagine the spectacular views of the snowy Big Sky wilderness that you can get from the back of a sled pulled by man’s best friend. This exhilarating and unique experience is available to adults and kids alike through Spirit of the North Dog Sled Adventures and Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures in the Big Sky area.

These experienced dogsled guiding companies offer several different packages, depending on your group-size, ability, price range, and how much time you have to spare.

Connie Sperry of Spirit of the North Dogsled Adventures says their tours are very flexible, and allow people of all ages to participate as much or as little as they want. In the many years Sperry and her family have been guiding in the Big Sky area, she says they have had guests of all ages, from 6 months to 90 years old.

To start, guides will show your group the ropes before hooking up the teams for a guided first run. After that, guests can choose to drive a team themselves or just enjoy the ride as a passenger. The sleds are driven by powerful and beautiful Alaskan huskies, and riders are encouraged to “socialize” with the dogs before the trip.

Sperry says the trail is a lot of fun, with plenty of curves. “So it’s not a flat pony ride,” she explains. On the journey, expect incredible scenery and a high likelihood of seeing some wildlife, too. Feel the wind whooshing by and listen to the panting of your furry escorts. The tour stops for a hot chocolate and cookie break and to switch drivers before heading back to camp.

Sperry began Spirit of the North Dogsled Adventures with her daughter Jessie Royer 21 years ago. Sperry and her husband took over the business entirely when Royer moved on to become a professional musher. Royer has since placed 10th or above in the Iditarod numerous times, and has competed well in many other races.

Spirit of the North offers half-day trips, which include a little over two hours of sledding time. Tours depart from Moonlight Basin at 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. seven days a week. Reservations are required. They recommends that participants “overdress” for their dog sledding experience, since sledding is not quite as active as other outdoor activities, like skiing. Other items you may want to bring include a camera, water bottle, and sunscreen.

Yellowstone Dog Adventures offers half-day trips departing at 9:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. Cost is $150 kids 5-12; $195 for adults.

In addition to half-day trips Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures also offers a family-friendly “Sled Dog Sampler” for those who prefer to ride with a guide for a shorter trip. The Sled Dog Sampler is $45 for kids and $85 for adults.

Both guiding companies promise gorgeous scenery and an unforgettable experience.