Avalanche season arrives in Garfield Co. after more snow

Thomas Phippen
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Loose, dry avalanche debris. Not enough to bury you with a clean runout, but could be worse in extreme terrain or a terrain trap.
Courtesy photo/CAIC

Last winter season rewrote the avalanche record book. More snow slid off Colorado peaks than ever recorded before, which also meant more people caught in dangerous situations.

While it’s unlikely the state will see the same amount of avalanche activity this year, the dangers are already starting to show.

Grand Mesa is one of the few areas of the state to be ranked with considerable avalanche danger by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

On Thursday, a snowmobile triggered a small snow slab slide in the Grand Mesa area, and skiers triggered a larger avalanche near Kebler Pass.

The avalanche danger comes from both new, freshly fallen snow and a weak snowpack underneath, according to the report. With more snow since Christmas Day, the danger can increase.

October’s snowstorms this year set up conditions for avalanche risk.

“That snow sat on the ground for a long time, and when that happens, it turns to weak-faceted crystals that aren’t bonded well together,” said Mike Cooperstein, a forecaster at the Avalanche Information Center.

That old snow can look like little glass pellets, and when heavier snow falls on top, the loose ice crystals underneath can become overburdened and slide.

“We’ve had that stuff sitting on the ground around the state, but especially in Grand Mesa where the snowpack is pretty thin,” Cooperstein said.

“As we add new load to those weak crystals, we build a slab over the top of those weak areas, we end up getting more avalanches,” Cooperstein said, which contributes to the red flag issues on Grand Mesa.

Colorado remains the most dangerous state for avalanches.

The state recorded 4,273 slides last season, according to the Avalanche Information Center’s annual report.

Only 92 of those avalanches caught up with humans. A total of 135 people were caught in avalanches, and eight of those people died.

The best way to avoid getting caught in an avalanche is to avoid avalanche-prone spots when the danger is high.

For Grand Mesa, any peaks near treeline on northerly or easterly facing slopes could be at risk of a slide. The weak ice crystal base needs shade to develop into the shifting pellet shapes.

But other areas could exhibit the telltale signs of weak snowpack.

“What people want to look out for is cracking, collapsing in the snowpack, and recent avalanche activity,” Cooperstein said.

The Avalanche Information Center encourages backcountry visitors to read the daily avalanche outlook before venturing out. Every member of the party also should have rescue gear, including a shovel, avalanche probe and a transponder.


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