Aspen avalanche workshop just in time |

Aspen avalanche workshop just in time

ASPEN ” The timing couldn’t be better for Mountain Rescue Aspen’s annual Avalanche Awareness Workshop.

The two-day class, to be held Friday evening and all day Saturday, comes on the heels of the most hazardous avalanche conditions yet this season in the mountains surrounding Aspen.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued an avalanche warning for the Aspen zone on Monday that continues through Tuesday evening; avalanche danger was rated high on all aspects and at all elevations following a weekend storm that dumped more than 2 feet of snow on area mountains.

“We are in an amazing natural avalanche cycle,” said longtime Mountain Rescue member David Swersky, who helps coordinate the workshop.

“Ninety percent of the time, someone who gets caught in an avalanche either triggers it him or herself, or it’s triggered by someone near them,” he explained.

Multiple, natural slides observed in the backcountry on Sunday, however, led to Monday’s avalanche warning, said Scott Toepfer, forecaster at the CAIC’s Boulder headquarters.

A large, natural slide came down in the upper Castle Creek Valley, south of Aspen, Sunday afternoon between two groups of skiers returning from a hut trip. No one was hurt.

“They got lucky ” it just missed them by a few minutes, I think,” said Brian McCall, local avalanche forecaster for the CAIC. He headed up the Castle Creek Valley on Monday to take a look at the slide’s aftermath and said he spotted signs of numerous natural slides in the valley, including the Five Fingers area above Conundrum.

One avalanche path below the turnoff to Conundrum slid to within 30 feet of Castle Creek Road, he said.

“It’s going to take awhile to settle down from this one,” McCall said. “Inbounds [skiing] is a really good choice right now.”

On Friday, a skier died in a slide in the East Vail Chutes, though he and his companions were properly equipped with shovels, probes and beacons. The skier, who died of asphyxiation, was found after 10 to 20 minutes, buried in 6 feet of snow. The avalanche danger at the time was rated as moderate with pockets of considerable danger.

Assessing the avalanche danger in the backcountry is the focus of this weekend’s workshop, which begins with a three-hour session Friday evening at the Aspen District Theatre. McCall will be the guest speaker.

Saturday, workshop participants will spend the day on Richmond Ridge, off the top of Aspen Mountain, digging snowpits to assess the snowpack, and practicing the use of avalanche beacons and probes.

Current snowpack conditions should make for an interesting workshop, according to Swersky.

“It’s going to create just an absolutely fascinating snowpack for us to study on Saturday,” he said. “I don’t know what exactly it’s going to be, but it’s going to be interesting.”

This year’s snowpack began with snow in October, followed by a prolonged dry spell and warmer temperatures, creating a base layer that didn’t bond well with subsequent snow once winter began in earnest in late November, he said. Since then, there has been a lot of snow, wind loading and variations in temperature, all affecting the snowpack.

Still, it’s behavioral science, not snow science, that is the main focus of the workshop, Swersky said.

“It’s about how to make wise decisions,” he said.

Participants receive instruction in terrain recognition, safe route selection in the backcountry and avoiding hazards. What to do in the event someone is caught in a slide is also covered.

The workshop is considered an introductory course, but some seasoned backcountry users choose to participate repeatedly, using the workshop as a refresher course.

“I learn something every year, and I’ve been doing this for 25 years now,” Swersky said.

Friday’s session is from 6 to 9 p.m. Register at the district theater from 5:15 to 6 p.m. Participation on Friday evening is required in order to join Saturday’s class in the field.

Saturday’s session takes place on top of the mountain from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., followed by a group rescue problem back in town ” at the Mountain Chalet.

The $30 workshop fee covers both days, one gondola ride and educational materials.

The weekend winter storm heightened the avalanche danger Monday in the Aspen area as well as five other “zones” defined by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. All of the high-danger areas ” denoted in red on the CAIC’s website map ” were south of the Interstate 70 corridor. One of them ” the Gunnison zone ” was assigned an extreme rating.

The CAIC rarely rates danger as extreme, Toepfer said. It’s reserved for extremely unstable and dangerous conditions, when the potential exists for “some very large, destructive avalanches to run,” he said.

The Gunnison zone is located directly south of the Aspen zone and includes Crested Butte. The extreme rating was posted Monday morning and was downgraded to high with Tuesday’s report, though an avalanche warning there remains in effect.

In addition to the avalanche warning in the Aspen zone, warnings are also in effect for both the northern and southern San Juan zones, where the danger was rated high on all aspects and at all elevations.

Avalanche danger is also high for certain aspects in the Sawatch zone, which includes Leadville. Tuesday’s rating on the Grand Mesa outside of Grand Junction remained high on north, east and southeast aspects at all elevations, and considerable on all other aspects and elevations, according to the CAIC.

More moderate ratings are posted for the Vail/Summit zone and the Steamboat/Parks Range zone.

Go to for the CAIC’s statewide report, which is updated daily.

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