Big snows in Aspen area produced landscape-changing avalanches
The prolific snowfall this winter not only brought great resort skiing, it created backcountry avalanche conditions that produced awe and tragedy.
“What we saw was a historic avalanche cycle that occurred over the first 12 days of March,” said Brian Lazar, deputy director and a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The granddaddy of them all was a slide that broke at the top of Highlands Ridge on March 8 or 9. The slide broke over a mile wide and ran more than 3,000 vertical feet from the K-Chutes and Five Fingers area into Conundrum Creek Valley. It rumbled down with such force that it climbed the opposing valley wall for a couple of hundred feet and knocked down hundreds of aspen trees.
Lazar told The Aspen Times at the time that the Conundrum avalanche was the largest the terrain could produce. “This is a landscape-changing event,” he said.
He reiterated that point last week. The avalanche center documented numerous slides “in paths that only run every few decades,” Lazar said.
Not only did slides clear out old paths that haven’t slid in years, the size of many of the avalanches cleared wider paths in traditional routes.
“Conundrum took out over 1,000 trees,” Lazar said. “Some of these trees were over 100 years old.”
It also damaged an unoccupied home even though a concrete wall built as a protective wedge diverted the brunt of the slide.
There were 51 known avalanches in the Aspen zone between March 1 and 12, according to the avalanche center’s database. That’s only the slides that were observed. The avalanches occurred in all the major drainages — Maroon Creek Valley, Castle Creek Valley, Yule Creek in Marble, Garret Peak-East Snowmass Creek. The list goes on and on.
Heavy snowfall over two weeks starting in late February loaded weak, underlying layers of snow that fell in October. That early snow never solidified into a stable foundation, as is common in the Colorado mountains.
Avalanches have killed eight people in Colorado as of April 27. Aspen suffered its share of tragedy. Arin Trook, the education director at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, was killed while on a hut trip south of Aspen Jan. 21.
Owen Green of Aspen and Michael Goerne of Carbondale were killed while backcountry skiing in Brush Creek Valley outside of Crested Butte on Feb. 16.
Conditions have vastly improved with warmer spring temperatures. There is still an incredible snowpack — 121 percent of median at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River and 140 percent of median at Schofield Pass. Lazar said a slow ease into warmer temperatures would make for ideal conditions, but wet slides still present a risk. Conditions in the Aspen zone are forecast to be moderate, or the second lowest rating, for the next several days.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Lazar said.
CAIC is looking for help from the public to document the damage from slides. When spring skiing or even hiking in the summer, take notes and submit an observation via the avalanche center’s website at https://avalanche.state.co.us/.
“The location, extend and damage to trees or structures will be helpful,” the website said. “And pictures are always helpful.”