Avalanche danger is on the upswing | AspenTimes.com

Avalanche danger is on the upswing

Steve Benson
Aspen Times Staff Writer

What’s going on in the backcountry?

Heading into mid-February, there have been no avalanche fatalities in Colorado this season and a remarkably low number of avalanche-related incidents.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), “that goes against the odds.”

In the 1999-2000 season, eight people died in nine different avalanches in Colorado ” and seven of those incidents occurred before February.

On Friday afternoon, following a week of heavy snow, a call to the CAIC’s director Knox Williams revealed a dark and scary turn of events.

“There is a rescue in progress right now on Berthoud Pass,” Williams said. “An ambulance has been called because of an avalanche ” our record may have been broken.”

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While not technically a record for the longest Colorado has gone into a season without an avalanche fatality, Williams said it feels like it.

“I’m surprised we’ve gotten through [early] February without a fatality,” he said. “It feels pretty good to have gotten this deep into a season … I’ve had my fingers crossed, but it’s too much to hope for to get through [the entire season].”

And, according to Williams, the dynamics in the backcountry are changing ” for the worse.

A storm last week dumped close to 30 inches of snow on most local backcountry areas. And that, combined with a relatively meager month of snowfall in January, has created a dangerous layer that may not bond well to the old snowpack.

“We’re at the stage right now where we’re setting ourselves up for an interesting February,” he said. “It could be dangerous.”

What worries Williams is the mindset of some backcountry travelers. A relatively incident-free season, he said, could have some believing conditions are safer than they actually are. Furthermore, daily reports warning of the likelihood of triggered avalanches don’t always prevent people from venturing into the backcountry ” as was the case Friday.

The avalanche on Berthoud Pass, which was 30 feet wide and ran 200 vertical feet, was triggered by a man who was skiing in a gully in the Floral Park area. He had been separated from his group and was completely buried with his head near the surface.

“He shook his head loose and got himself out eventually,” Williams said. “He complained of injuries, but survived ” that was a good thing.

“He was lucky.”

A day earlier, reports from the CAIC warned of the dangerous backcountry conditions.

While some still put themselves at risk despite warnings, Janet Kellam, director of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center in Idaho, which operates in the same offices of the National Avalanche Center, feels backcountry travelers are generally making safer decisions.

“We do feel the [increased] education and information has helped people stay heads-up when avalanche danger goes up,” she said. “We have seen that when we have considerable avalanche danger or greater, people are making smarter choices. There are always people that will choose differently, but there’s a much greater awareness.”

Williams, however, said the low number of incidents in Colorado this season is a direct result of the conditions in the backcountry.

“A good part of it has to do with the snowpack,” he said. “We started out the year with very little snow early on, and people weren’t going out because it was low-quality snow. That snow sat there for two months and rotted out with facets. It was very sugary but without a slab on top.

“Two things that type of snowpack will cause: not very good skiing and if you release anything, it won’t promulgate (or slide massively).”

But, Williams added, last week’s storm was the first new layer, or slab, to the snowpack that could be troublesome.

“The snowpack has been less dangerous than an average winter ” up to this point,” he said. “All of that is changing as we speak. We’re right on the cusp of a more dangerous situation.

“I’m nervous.”

[Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com]

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