Avalanche risk on the increase | AspenTimes.com

Avalanche risk on the increase

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

While the recent dumps of snow have greatly improved the skiing in the Aspen/Snowmass area, they have also increased the danger of backcountry avalanches.

“I would be very conservative right now,” said Dick Jackson, a veteran backcountry guide and the owner of Aspen Expeditions. “If you get on anything with a real pitch to it, I’d be careful.”

Jackson made his observation on Wednesday night, the day before two fatal avalanches in the Aspen backcountry.

He had explained that the recent heavy, wet snowfalls are now sitting on top of an unstable snowpack. And it may not take much to set off a slide on a steep slope.

And, he said, because there are many local skiers eager to get out in the backcountry and enjoy the fresh snow, that could spell trouble.

“I kind of sense that there is this confidence level that is based on little more than excitement to go skiing,” Jackson said. As he was digging a snow pit this week on Richmond Ridge near the top of Aspen Mountain, a group of skiers sped past through the fresh snow. After analyzing the stability of the snowpack, Jackson decided not to ski the slope.

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Last week, heavy snowfalls prompted the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) to issue an avalanche warning for the Elk and West Elk mountains between Aspen and Crested Butte.

While the warning has since been lifted, some local snowpack experts are still plenty wary of how unstable the snowpack is.

“I don’t see locally why we wouldn’t still be in a high state of danger,” said Mac Smith, the veteran ski patrol director at Aspen Highlands. “We are still seeing a lot of things run.”

Mac made his observation Thursday morning, before the news of slides came in.

The ski patrol at the Aspen/Snowmass ski areas do not control the snowpack outside of the ski-area boundaries, but they have a very good sense of the snowpack in the backcountry.

“We normally go through a cycle like this, but it usually is much earlier in the season,” Smith said.

And even after the CAIC lifted its recent warning, it still noted that “the backcountry avalanche danger remains considerable in the Elk and West Elk mountains between Crested Butte and Aspen.

“A considerable danger means that human-triggered avalanches are probable on slopes 30 degrees and steeper. Backcountry users should continue to use extra caution in all steep terrain,” the center reported.

And on Thursday morning, the CAIC’s report noted that “new snow and blowing snow last night have increased the avalanche danger in most areas.

“Reports indicate that the new snow came in wet and it seems to have bonded well with the old snow. That is the good news. The bad news is the wind has transported much of this snow into starting zones.”

The CAIC rated the backcountry avalanche danger as “considerable” and said that “unstable slabs are probable on steep terrain. Natural avalanches are possible, and human-triggered avalanches are likely.”