Avalanche danger rising | AspenTimes.com

Avalanche danger rising

Tim Mutrie

“Would you go into a bar where you have a considerable chance of getting killed?” asks Scott Toepfer of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Toepfer said the question is one backcountry users should be asking themselves these days, given the region’s current snowpack conditions.

“That bar is the same thing as the backcountry right now,” the Boulder-based mountain weather and avalanche forecaster said. “You have to look at the consequences, and you have to learn to minimize risk and practice safe backcountry habits.”

This week alone, three Colorado backcountry users have been killed in avalanches. Among the victims was longtime Snowmass Village resident Carl “Chip” Johnson, 37. Tuesday afternoon, Johnson was buried in a snowslide in Hurricane Gulch, located above Little Annie Road on the backside of Aspen Mountain. Also on Tuesday, a 21-year-old Breckenridge snowboarder was killed in an avalanche while riding out-of-bounds terrain near the Arapahoe Basin ski area. And on Sunday, a 26-year-old Denver woman was buried and killed while snowshoeing on Jones Pass in Clear Creek County.

The recent avalanche deaths boosted the toll to six this winter, which is the average number of avalanche deaths in a season, said Toepfer. The record in recent memory was 12 deaths in the 1992-93 season, he added.

“This is about as bad as I’ve seen it,” Toepfer said. “We have already seen six [fatalities] and we are still early in the season.”

Debbie Kelly, president of Mountain Rescue Aspen, advised backcountry users to avoid slopes of between 30 and 45 degrees – prime avalanche terrain.

“Right now you should avoid being on or underneath slopes of 30 to 45 degrees,” Kelly said. “When avalanches are probable or likely to happen, there’s a pretty good chance an avalanche will happen if you’re on the right slope angle: 30 to 45 degrees. If you want to minimize your chance of getting caught in an avalanche, you just shouldn’t ski it.”

Yesterday afternoon, Toepfer planned to up the avalanche danger rating in the Aspen area from “moderate” to “considerable,” and even “high” on some slope aspects – those facing west through north through southeast, he said.

The rating of “considerable” – the median rating on a scale of five – means natural avalanches are possible, and human-triggered avalanches are probable. A “high” avalanche rating means that natural and human-triggered avalanches are likely, according to the U.S. Avalanche Danger Scale.

“Once you leave the [ski] area, it’s pretty dangerous out there,” said Steve Stefferud, an Aspen Highlands ski patroller. “We feel safe about our in-bounds skiing, but outside of that, it’s very fragile. We saw a natural avalanche release [Wednesday] out of bounds on the Maroon Bowl side of the upper mountain.”

At least a half-dozen natural and human-triggered slides have been reported in the vicinity of Aspen this week.

“There have been 106 slides reported to us since Sunday,” Toepfer said. “And while that’s not a whole lot, it sure is an indicator.

“We knew when it started to snow that we’d see this dangerous snowpack,” Toepfer said, “and we also knew that people would behave this way when the snow fell. People are addicts – `I gotta go,’ they think – and don’t practice restraint.”

Out-of-bounds areas can be accessed legally from all four of Aspen’s ski areas, but Stefferud doesn’t advise sampling that powder.

“We have a lot of closed areas that are bordering right on ski area boundaries,” he said. “We can’t stop people from going out there, but it’s pretty scary, seeing how weak the snowpack is.

“The hazards we’ve seen – not only natural but trigger releases – shows that the backcountry is extremely dangerous right now on all faces,” he said.

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