Blizzard snarled travel and led to dramatic rescue of 2 hikers

Chaffin Mitchell
·6 min read

An all-out blizzard unfolded across Montana Sunday into Monday, snarling travel as heavy snow piled up and near hurricane-force winds whipped the snow around. Bitterly cold air accompanied the strengthening storm that triggered the blizzard, adding shock value to the sudden weather changes and also making conditions even more dangerous.

For a storm to be considered a blizzard, heavy or blowing snow must occur along with sustained winds of 35 miles per hour or greater, and visibility of a quarter of a mile or less. All of these conditions must be sustained for at least three hours, but some areas of Montana were still experiencing blizzard conditions into the early hours of Monday morning.

The heaviest snowfall buried northern and central portions of Montana. A total of 19 inches was measured near Lewistown, Montana, and another location 30 miles north of Gilford picked up 18 inches of snow.

Areas around Great Falls, Montana, saw anywhere from a foot up to 18 inches of snow. Farther south, Helena picked up around half a foot of snow. Much lesser amounts of around 3 inches were reported around Bozeman and Billings.

The storm arrived with dense fog, rain and freezing rain before temperatures plummeted and rain flipped over to sheets of snow. In the span of a few days from Friday to Sunday, temperatures dropped as much as 40 degrees F into the teens and 20s.

Strong winds made it feel even colder with AccuWeather RealFeel® Temperatures much lower than what the thermometer read.

McAllister, Montana, clocked one of the highest wind gusts on Sunday morning when winds reached 71 mph, nearly as high as winds found in a hurricane.

The weather system began dropping snow across areas farther west, including across high elevations of Washington, Oregon and Northern California on Friday. The storm continued to intensify as it shifted farther east on Saturday, resulting in increasingly strong wind gusts, as well as the development of heavy snow across Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Montana into the southern Canadian Prairies.

By Saturday night, conditions across northern Montana rapidly deteriorated as snow and gusty winds continued to intensify. MDT Road Report reported severe driving conditions along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains as well as portions of Interstate 15. The high winds combined with the snow made visibility near zero at times across Interstates 15, 90 and 94.

Car crashes backed up traffic on Interstate 15 north of Power, Montana, on Sunday morning, according to KRTV.

The Montana Department of Transportation reported on Sunday morning that U.S. Highway 191 from Harlowton to Eddie's Corner was closed as of 12:34 a.m., Sunday due to blowing and drifting snow that created "zero visibility."

Eight search and rescue members found two hikers on Colorado's highest peak after quickly intensifying blizzard conditions trapped the hikers off the trail in white-out conditions around 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

After three hours of searching on Mount Elbert in severe winter weather, the Chaffee County and Lake County Search and Rescue teams managed to bring the hikers to the trailhead around 5 a.m. Sunday.

An ambulance waited at the trailhead to provide medical attention to the hikers, one of whom lost a shoe in 20-degree temperatures.

A rescue crew searched for three hours to find two hikers. (Lake County Search and Rescue)

"At an elevation of 12,800 feet, the hikers were above the tree line and exposed to the elements when they requested help. The trail up to the summit of Mount Elbert is easy to follow when there is no snow on the ground, but the heavy snow paired with blowing winds can make it very difficult to navigate, especially after sunset," AccuWeather Meteorologist Brian Lada said.

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Power outages began to mount past 12,000 in Montana on Sunday morning as the snowstorm progressed, but by early Monday morning, all but a few hundred outages had been restored, according to PowerOutage.us.

Schools began announcing delays and cancelations on Sunday as the weather progressively worsened.

Some residents in Park City Mountain, Utah, were happy to wake up to a coating of snow covering the mountain.

"This new stretch of snow and cold temperatures will help make for great early season skiing and snowboarding," Park City Mountain Communications Manager Jessica Miller told AccuWeather.

By Sunday night, the storm shifted farther north into Canada. As it departed the United States, snow began to taper off and winds began to diminish. Around 2:30 a.m., the storm began moving to the east, but blizzard conditions remained in Blaine and Fergus Counties at 5 a.m., local time.

According to AccuWeather Meteorologist Matt Benz, the worst of the snow in the area hit on Sunday afternoon. By Monday morning, Benz said there were some flurries and light snow continuing in Northeast Montana, including Great Falls, but overall the snow had wrapped up for the state.

Even after the snowfall diminished across the state, roadways remained snow-covered and icy in spots, according to the NWS. Breezy winds caused drifting snow in some areas, leaving wintry conditions across roads that had been cleared.

The conditions over the weekend has led to increased avalanche danger in the area, especially on slopes that had snow on them prior to the storm and where new snow has drifted from the wind.

The official high temperature in the state on Sunday was 56 degrees F at Ekalaka Airport, but the low on Monday morning plunged all the way down to minus 1 F near Dunkirk. Benz said temperatures in the state Monday morning were "frigid."

"Actual air temps are in the 10s, but factor in the wind, AccuWeather RealFeel Temperatures are in the single digits below zero," he said.

Temperatures are forecast to remain below normal through the early week, with the winterlike cold also plunging through the desert Southwest. The next chance for snow will arrive with another storm system on Tuesday night and Wednesday.

This next system will be much weaker though, and at this time, snow amounts with that system are expected to be no more than a few inches outside of a few mountain slopes that typically see heavier snow.

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