Aspen-area avalanche danger remains high in Colorado’s deadly winter

Eighth person killed this season by avalanche; winter average in Colorado is six

Art Burrows captured this image of a massive avalanche on Garrett Peak outside of Snowmass Ski Area on Feb. 4. Another slide was visible on Thursday.
Art Burrows/courtesy photo

An avalanche warning is set to expire in the Aspen area at 7 a.m. Friday but there will still be considerable risk for backcountry travelers for the foreseeable future, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

In other words, don’t let the allure of powder cloud your judgment.

“We’re just now coming out of a fairly significant storm and a big loading event,” Brian Lazar, deputy director of CAIC, said Thursday. “The snowpack needs time to adjust to that. When you continue with incremental loading — even if it’s small little storms — it prolongs the period you need for the snowpack to become stable.”

Snow is forecast on Friday and into the weekend with the possibility of more snowstorms next week.

“Additional snow combined with drifting snow from the wind is going to keep things on the dangerous side,” said Lazar, a Carbondale resident.

Colorado’s mountains and weather have a notorious reputation for creating dangerous avalanche conditions. Fall snowstorms are typically followed by dry, warmer periods that make the base layer weak or unstable. Then when winter really kicks in, fresh snow is layered on top of the weak base, creating the potential for slides. That scenario has been exacerbated this winter.

“We’ve had a heightened concern for a good chunk of this season,” Lazar said. “The snowpack conditions this year are particularly dangerous. We see weak layers in our snowpack almost every year. We rarely see a snowpack structure this worrisome and reactive.”

Eight backcountry skiers have died in avalanches this season, including three from Eagle County in a tragic accident in southwest Colorado on Monday. The most recent death occurred Thursday in the East Vail Chutes. The average number of avalanches deaths in Colorado is six per season, so that’s already been exceeded through just half of the winter.

Lazar said the conditions this winter are so rare they only come around about once per decade.

“Even if you’re really an experienced backcountry traveler, and you’ve been going into the backcountry for 20 years, this might be only the second time you’ve seen conditions like this,” he said. “So it’s hard to develop tried and true travel habits that you know will work when you’ve only experienced it twice.

“What works in most years we’re seeing not work this year because things are breaking and failing in quite dramatic fashion,” he added.

One of the precarious conditions this season has been remote triggering of slides. Backcountry travelers in flat areas on ridges or valley floors can trigger avalanches on faraway steeper slopes.

“People are triggering avalanches from 800 to 1,000 feet away,” Lazar said.

That’s been so prevalent this season that CAIC made a video about the condition and posted it on its YouTube channel.

“Even if you are in low angle terrain, you have to be aware of steeper terrain that’s connected to you,” Lazar said. “That’s either above you or locally connected to you, like you’re on one slope and the adjacent slope connected to you is steeper. That means you are potentially at risk. You really have to reconsider what locally connected means. This essentially means give yourself really big buffers around steep avalanche terrain.”

Anyone contemplating backcountry travel should check conditions at