Hailey Montana Monsters

18 May 2014

After what has seemed like an eternity without any storms, today a slight risk was issued for one of the most northern states – Montana, a state we hadn’t yet visited. A quiet few days allowed us to position ourselves up here in a relaxed manner. We nailed a large part of the driving yesterday, leaving ourselves only about 3 hours to do today.

The risk zone was over much of central and southeast Montana, so we headed to Billings, the capital of Montana and a city with good links in each direction which is always good, especially up here where decent roads are scarce.

In fact, we ended up stopping about 150 miles shy of Billings to check what was happening. A mesoscale discussion had been issued, with the high chance of a warning to follow within the next few hours. Although some early convection had been noted, this wasn’t the real deal and a more severe threat was expected to initiate over the next couple of hours from the southern point of Billings further north.

We therefore decided that getting a bit further north ourselves may be a good idea before heading west. After an hour and a half north, true to expectations storms were firing to the west. We headed towards them. In hindsight, being that little bit further north wasn’t really necessary, but it hadn’t cost us much time. We were now on course to meet the storms in Billings. As we approached the city it was clear the storms were going to arrive slightly before us. So, to avoid meeting them in any sort built up area, we chose a few roads to take us a bit south and under the congealing line of storms.

The largest of the cells was now heading right through the centre of Billings. A storm that had just recently merged with a smaller one above it. Another cell, developing a little south of the main one was slightly ahead but slowly being drawn in by the larger of the 2 above it.

We were in a really good position to get in on and under the southern-most storm, which from a distance appeared a little featureless but was throwing out some good CGs. Then, just as we were getting closer, our data ran out! But a quick zip into a road side gas station to pick up a Verizon refill card got us back on track and we were back online again with radar data to hand. The US is just so convenient for such matters!

We decided we had just enough time to nose west down a road and have a quick look at the storm in a little more detail, but it was then going to be tight to get back out and head south to ensure we were fully out of the storms direct path as it passed by to the north of us. The closer look went well and we got a few shots, but the getting south didn’t quite go to plan.

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The first road we opted to head south on was looking dangerously close to what was now a very low rotating part of the storm. The green hue also put us off – there was no doubt the hail core on this storm was going to be powerful. We quickly took a photo, then made a quick decision to about turn and try to get a bit further east and ahead of it before escaping south.

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Going back the way we came wasn’t appealing though as it was more in the direction of the bigger of the storms and we could see the white hail core closing in on us across the field. We got onto a road east to take us to Interstate 90 where we could head south and then jump off and get back out in front of the storm again.

It would have been a good plan, had we not missed the exit off the Interstate. To be more precise it wasn’t a case of missing it, the road we wanted was not possible to take directly from the Interstate but was only possible from a road that ran alongside the Interstate and we hadn’t realised.

As we saw the road we needed fly past us, below the Interstate, it left us with no option but to head straight south on the I90, through the core of the storm that had 2 inch hail reported on it and even more worryingly a very low rotating area marked with numerous tornadic signature features on radar. It was so dark ahead and ominous looking. Being on the Interstate we were having to drive so fast towards it and we most definitely did not want to be going this way.

Luckily there was an exit coming up. Unfortunately it didn’t lead anywhere other than down to a little farm road, but it provided us with somewhere to pull over. It was more pragmatic to let this part of the storm pass over us then head into the area of rotation. Also, if we got caught in a hail storm with hail that large, going at speed on the Interstate, that would not be good.

The realisation that we were going to have to sit it out scared the crap out of me. You just have to sit there and take whatever the storm throws at you. Within seconds the hail started to hit us. First there were a few little pings and pongs. Then in no time the pings and pongs and thuds were pounding us and we couldn’t see anything out of the car. The noise grew to an incredible level and I flinched with each large impact, covering myself with a blanket in case one took a window out.

The intense pounding lasted about 2 minutes but it felt so much longer. We were parked up with our back to the wind to try to save our windscreen. It started to ease and the skies grew brighter, before gaining in strength once again for a short while before finally weakening. I could see massive hailstones littering the ground around the car. Some of which I had to get a photo of for memento.

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This was when we realised our side mirrors had been totally taken out by hail and were smashed to pieces. We also lost a taillight and poor Escapey 3’s bonnet was covered in hail dents. There were even large dents in the metal parts of the doorframe, which I thought would be tougher. It was big hail though.

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As soon as it was safe we headed off back down the I90. The road appeared white and was deep in ice. As we drove we passed by places where the hail that had fallen was even bigger. Only 5 miles up the road we found hailstones that were the size of baseballs. Seriously, we have never seen hailstones this big. They were ludicrous!

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At this point we had also lost all access to data. The satellite receiver wasn’t picking anything up and our 4G Mifi wasn’t working either, so it was back to the apparent old school way of chasing using eyes alone. Fortunately we were now out of harm’s way, with the line of storms way out in front of us. In fact, it was a great position to be in as we could see a lot of structure behind the storm with beautiful contrasting colours and tones. There were areas of turbulent skies, hail cores, rainbows all left in the wake of this storm, all in one field of view. It was beautiful and had made the pounding we took worth it!

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When the data finally came back, we realised what a monster this storm had now become. We have rarely seen reflectivity this strong – let alone a whole band of it. It was intense! (The white areas represent up to 80 DBZ – very strong hail and rain).

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We followed it until dusk bit finally decided it was time to call Hertz to explain the damage and set about potentially acquiring ourselves a new vehicle. Unfortunately at 8:30pm there are few options apart from airport locations. So we set the route planner for Denver, 450 miles south of our current location, picked up a couple of red bulls and hit the road. We needed to get it sorted, because tomorrow, there were more storms to chase! 

SPC Day 1 Weather Outlook as at 06:00UTC (01:00 Central Time the night before)

SPC 01:00UTC day 1 forecast for Sun May 2014

SPC Day 1 Weather Reports for the day.

SPC storm reports for Sun May 2014

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