Many backcountry avalanches triggered in the Aspen area over the last week
December 29, 2014
The Aspen-area forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center has seen several groups entering the backcountry without proper gear via Aspen's ski areas in the past week.
The lack of preparedness is concerning, especially when avalanche conditions are "considerable" right now, said Blase Reardon, the Aspen-zone forecaster.
While a "considerable" rating is the third-most dangerous level on a five-tier rating system, it's still very serious.
"'Considerable' is the danger level that puts the hair up on the back of my neck," Reardon said.
Backcountry areas that are accessible from ski resorts are known as sidecountry — the terrain is more accessible, but it's no less dangerous than any other backcountry area.
Backcountry guide Greg Shaffran, of Aspen, hates the term "sidecountry" because he thinks it implies the terrain is "sort of quasi-safe."
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"Sometimes, it's even more dangerous," said Shaffran, who works for Aspen Powder Tours and teaches avalanche safety classes for Aspen Expeditions. "You're stepping right off a ski lift and going directly into a start zone."
A skier triggered an avalanche in the Pandora's area, adjacent to Aspen Mountain, on Tuesday afternoon, according to a Friday morning statewide report by Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster Scott Toepfer.
Pandora's is near Richmond Ridge, where Reardon reported two slides Monday. One slide was triggered individually from 15 meters away as the skier approached the top of the slope, which was easterly terrain with a slope of 37 degrees, according to the report. The other slide appeared to have been natural, but it also could have been triggered by a snowmobile on the road above, the report said.
Four slides also were reported in the Aspen zone Wednesday. No injuries were reported in any of the recent slides, but that's not indicative of the dangers that currently exist.
"Several large, natural avalanches also occurred Monday night or Tuesday on either side of Raspberry Ridge, above Marble. These slides had crowns 300 to 800 feet wide and 1 to 2 feet deep," Toepfer's report said. "They ran on both easterly and westerly slopes that are prone to wind loading or cross loading."
The key factors contributing to current avalanche conditions are the two-week dry spell in late November into early December, which left a weak snowpack, combined with the fairly continuous snow since Dec. 13, Reardon said.
"Basically, 40 percent of the snowpack has fallen in the last two weeks — and that's water, not just height — so we've put a lot of load onto that weak structure," he said.
Reardon said skiers triggered slides on Richmond Ridge on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, including both small and large slides.
Because of recent weather and wind, most skiers and snowboarders are staying where it's more sheltered — below treeline.
"And it's really easy to underestimate the danger because slopes are small," Reardon said. "My concern is there's enough snow to get around on some of these lower-elevation areas and people aren't recognizing if there's an unstable structure there."
A "considerable" rating means backcountry travelers need to make careful choices about terrain, he said. A rule of thumb is to stay off slopes that are 30 degrees or steeper and to stay out from under them, he said. Slides aren't always triggered from above. An avalanche near Loveland Pass in 2013 that killed five people was triggered from below.
Shaffran has been backcountry skiing all week and said he's managing his risk by choosing the right terrain. He said the weak layer of snow is currently buried deep within the snowpack and that the typical red flags skiers look for in the backcountry, such as cracking in the snow, aren't happening.
"Right now, there's this lurking danger buried deep in the snowpack," he said. "There's a high degree of uncertainty, so with that, the safety margins have to be wider."
An obvious safety precaution is education, which many so-called sidecountry travelers often lack. Because Aspen Skiing Co. doesn't monitor the backcountry gates at its ski areas, skiers and snowboarders are on their own in terms of making the right decisions.
"We don't have an ongoing educational component where we stop people at the gates," said Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle. "The signs say you're taking your life at risk — with big skulls and crossbones. It's pretty clear you should know what you're doing before you go."
But with such explicit signs, plenty of people still choose to enter without gear — and often that also means without proper education.
It's something Reardon is passionate spreading the word about.
"A small slope that's survivable with gear will turn deadly without it," he said.
It's a real fear in the backcountry every season as snow the continues to fall and entice powder enthusiasts to head out for fluffy turns.
"I feel like we're coming to a dangerous time," Shaffran said. "Conditions are there, and there's the human factor — people are going to want to be out skiing those lines."