Colorado’s record-setting early season snow would seem to be the answer to everyone’s prayers, from ski resorts advertising deep bases and terrain openings, to farmers and water suppliers who needed a rebound in the mountain snowpack after last year’s levels shrunk to historic lows.
Unfortunately, it also comes with a deadly downside; avalanches, one of which fully buried a skier, are being reported throughout the state.
“We’ve got some good early season snow, which is oftentimes not great news for long-term avalanche conditions,” said Colorado Avalanche Information Center Deputy Director Brian Lazar. “If the snow sits out there too long in cold, dry conditions, it can turn into a weak layer.”
Over the last 10 winters, 276 people have died in avalanches in the United States, 59 of them in Colorado, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Colorado’s snow season kicked off in early October, allowing Wolf Creek Ski Area to get its lifts spinning Oct. 13. Unlike last year, when Colorado stayed parched through most of November and December, snow has fallen fairly consistently this winter.
As of Saturday night, the statewide snowpack was at 117 percent of its historic median.
Had several feet of snow fallen quickly on top of the first layers, the snowpack could have stabilized. Enough snow fell to more than satisfy resorts, but too little fell to prevent a weak layer from forming that will persist throughout the rest of the season.
A large natural avalanche in a bowl near Breckenridge, though, “was a good reminder that it is only the first of December and our snowpack is still young and relatively weak,” said Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster Keston Rohrig.
Crested Butte, which is home to its own avalanche forecasting organization independent of the state-run Colorado Avalanche Information Center, is noticing similar conditions develop. Ian Havlick, the lead forecaster at Crested Butte Avalanche Center, said the snow on the ground rotted away in November, creating a layer “that usually haunts us across much of the Rockies for most of the winter.”
The breakable layer is appearing in the middle of the snowpack, Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported Friday. If this layer breaks and an avalanche is triggered, the entire season’s snowpack will likely slide.
Seventy-five human and naturally triggered avalanches have been reported in the 2018-2019 season, 59 of which were reported in the Front Range.
Though other reported slides have been larger, a Nov. 24 avalanche near Aspen Mountain that fully buried a skier sent a chill through the backcountry community.
Two people were traversing across a slope in an area permitted to Aspen Mountain Powder Tours when the snow broke and carried the skier, who was not named, 20 yards downhill.
He was fully buried at the base of a small evergreen and was rescued by his partner. He was conscious and uninjured.
Avalanche danger was rated as “considerable” above, at and below treeline.
The incident was one of three reported in the backcountry of Colorado this year, the worst of which fractured a hiker’s pelvis as he was carried by cascading snow over several cliffs 10 to 15 feet high south of South Arapaho Peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
Havlick noted another avalanche triggered by a skier upholding a 20-year tradition of hiking up Mount Emmons and “claim the Red Lady Bowl’s season virginity.”
When the first of the skiers dropped into the bowl, a slab of snow broke, carrying away the skier, who was not injured.
“This incident punctuates the importance of reading the daily CBAC avalanche report, and fending off those inner cravings of powder fever,” Havlick said. “We are glad all involved are OK, and this was merely a ‘free lesson.’”
The close calls this season are a reminder to those traveling in the backcountry to educate themselves and carry the proper safety equipment.
“Anytime we’re talking about avalanches, forecasting and conditions, we stress that people educate themselves in terms of the hazards out there and how to be safe,” said Pikes Peak Alpine School Chief Guide Pete Lardy.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center and Crested Butte Avalanche Center publish daily avalanche and weather forecasts, which detail where dangers are most likely to be found. They can be found at https://avalanche.state.co.us and https://cbavalanchecenter.org/.
Avalanche education courses are held throughout the state. Most entry-level courses are four days and include classroom and field work.
A list of avalanche courses, as well as other avalanche resources, are available at https://avalanche.state.co.us/education/class-calendar/.
For those with or without a certification, practicing using a beacon, shovel and probe could save someone’s life. Most avalanche officials say a person who is fully buried will survive for 15 minutes, so a fast, efficient rescue is critical.
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