Colorado snowpack remains touchy
December 19, 2008
The season’s first avalanche death near Aspen on Sunday and an inbounds slide at Vail are clear signs that Colorado’s snowpack is touchy and prone to triggered releases that could run deep and wide.
Avalanche centers around the region, including the normally stable Pacific Northwest, are warning about tricky early season conditions.
The slide activity around the region should be a warning sign for backcountry travelers, U.S. Forest Service rangers said.
Avalanche experts are urging people to be very cautious, to choose routes carefully and to avoid slide-prone terrain.
Blasting at Vail Pass Wednesday triggered numerous slides, with most of them running to the ground, the avalanche center reported in its afternoon update.
A natural avalanche was spotted in the Peak 6 bowl between Frisco and Breckenridge, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported a slab avalanche running on a relatively shallow-angled, 22-degree slope near Aspen.
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The avalanche hazard across the entire Summit zone is rated as considerable, meaning that human-triggered slides are probable. More snow and wind are in the forecast, so the danger probably won’t subside anytime soon.
“It’s an obvious heads-up,” said Dillon District snow ranger Joe Foreman, referring to the recent activity inside and outside ski-area boundaries. The Forest Service has held informal talks with ski-area officials to discuss avalanche safety protocols, he said.
The biggest danger for backcountry travelers could be a false sense of security. Hasty tests and shallow snow pits may suggest a superficially stable snowpack. But several weak layers deep down are troubling to avalanche forecasters.
“It seems like, statewide, there’s deep instability,” said Simon Trautman, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Trautman said snow layers in one test didn’t just crumble or slump ” they released with audible pops, indicating tension in the snow layers, just waiting for a trigger.
That trigger could be a human cutting across the point where a windslab is anchored to the surrounding snow, or landing a jump from a cornice or rock.
“Now is probably not a good time to be a human cliff-hucking bomb in steep, open terrain,” forecaster Scott Toepfer said in his Wednesday web bulletin.