Backcountry in spring is great until it’s not; avalanche danger still very present |

Backcountry in spring is great until it’s not; avalanche danger still very present

Ryan Spencer
Summit Daily News
A skier hits the Sugar Bowls outside of Buttermilk in 2020.
Bob Ward/Courtesy photo

This time of year, blue skies and warm sunshine are calling. Spring weather — albeit between intermittent snowstorms — after a winter with a strong snowpack is sure to have adventurers seeking out the Summit County backcountry.

While experienced mountaineers say the springtime can be a great time for exploring the backcountry, experts and rescue volunteers want to remind anyone headed out into the mountains that they should have the required knowledge and training for the task at hand and be prepared for rapidly changing conditions.

“We have warmer and sunnier days and it kind of lures people out into the High Country, which is awesome,” said Lindsey Wiebold, a member of Summit County Rescue Group, said. “And, in general the snowpack in this area begins to stabilize, at least in deeper buried weak layers. But we’re certainly not out of the woods yet.”

Wiebold, a wilderness EMT and avalanche safety instructor, noted that spring — with warmer temperatures, chirping birds and wildlife waking from winter slumbers — is a beautiful time for backcountry snowshoeing or, for those with the necessary training, skiing and splitboarding.

But there are also no shortage of dangers this time of year. 

“When temperatures warm, both when you have clear skies and a lot of solar radiation, it warms the surface snow and you can start to see liquid water running through the snowpack,” Wiebold said. “Which creates the potential for bigger instability.”

Every year, Summit County Rescue Group responds to springtime calls involving backcountry users, including avalanches, which can still be fatal in spring conditions.

In April 2020, the all-volunteer group responded to an injured snowboarder on Loveland Pass, an avalanche fatality on Red Peak and a snowboarder who hit a tree on Georgia Pass, according to Summit County Rescue Group member and spokesperson Anna DeBattiste. In April 2021, rescuers were again called to Red Peak when a skier triggered an avalanche but no one was injured.

Last spring proved to be especially busy. In April 2022, a skier triggered an avalanche in the backcountry near Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, rescuers helped an injured skier who hit a rock on Quandary, volunteers responded to a skier with a head injury at Janet’s Cabin and another skier triggered an avalanche on Bald Mountain that didn’t result in injuries.

Then, in May 2022, yet another skier triggered an avalanche in the backcountry near Arapahoe Basin and a pair of split boarders become lost on Buffalo Mountain after riding Silver Couloir. Not properly prepared for the spring conditions, the split boarders became disoriented during the hike back and had to be rescued after sunset, DeBattiste said.

So far in April this year, Summit County Rescue Group has mobilized a seven-hour evacuation of an injured skier on North Star Mountain and worked with Flight for Life to rescue an injured skier on Quandary, she added.

In general, avalanche conditions in the springtime can be more predictable than in the winter, according to Brian Lazar, the deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

But, “just because it’s spring conditions, you don’t really want to change your backcountry ritual,” Lazar said.  

Noting that the last avalanche fatality last year occurred in May, he stressed that backcountry goers should still check the information center’s forecasts, carry an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe, and travel with a partner carrying the same gear and is trained to use it.

“When you get into spring activity, particularly once you’ve turned the corner and you’re into more mature, ripe springtime snows, the nature of the avalanches you’re going to see changes a little bit,” Lazar said.

Whereas in the winter, persistent weak layers may be hidden under several feet of snow with no obvious signs indicating the avalanche danger, in the spring clues for wet avalanche activity are typically closer to the surface, Lazar said.

These springtime clues can include roller balls forming in the snow and small avalanches, especially near rocks, which can radiate heat after being warmed up by the sun, causing nearby snow to lose cohesion first.

Spring skiing down a couloir above Independence Lake back in 2016.
Ted Mahon/Courtesy photo

“You often have more periods of generally safe avalanche conditions once it gets into a ripe spring snowpack,” Lazar said. “It allows you to move into steeper terrain, bigger lines that would have been too risky during the spring. So essentially it just opens up the pallet of choices in the spring.”

Aaron Parmet, an EMT, avalanche rescue technician and longtime member of Summit County Rescue Group, noted that conditions can change quickly in the spring as the snow reacts to warm temperatures and sunshine.

Through the spring, backcountry skiers and split boarders should be monitoring the melt-freeze cycle while also paying attention to storm events that could result in wind-drifted snow that will heat up and melt off, Lazar said.

Before heading out, Lazar said backcountry users should be asking themselves a few questions, including: How good of a freeze was there overnight? What is the forecast saying about later in the day? How big of a window will there be before the snow softens up?

“One aspect may be winter snowpack while the other may be facing a set of wet slide problems,” Parmet said. “In fact, the same slope in the same day may actually transition from dry snow problems to wet snow problems.”

A big part of exploring the backcountry is planning ahead, Parmet said. Checking the weather and avalanche forecast and choosing the right aspect at the right elevation is crucial to a successful and safe backcountry experience, he said.

Usually, in the spring, that means getting an “Alpine start,” Parmet said, meaning backcountry users should consider leaving early — even before sunrise — in order to be at the bottom of the mountain by the time the snow has warmed up and avalanche conditions are present.

“Often in spring we say things like ‘off the summit by noon,'” he said. “Well, it may be that you need to be there even before then. We say that both because of the snow and because as you get into monsoon season with thunderstorms, being above tree line with lightning is terrifying.”

In the spring, skiers and snowboarders should also be aware of cornice collapses, which occur when temperatures and sunshine heat up cornices to the point where they can’t support themselves and collapse, oftentimes triggering large avalanches, Parmet said.

With steeper slopes and more technical terrain accessible in the springtime, Parmet said skiers should take caution in steeper terrain where it might be harder to self arrest if they fall and stick to areas that match their skills and training.

“The progression slowly will reward you in the long run instead of simply pushing as far as you can,” he said. “The mountains will always be there the next day. Having the right equipment and knowing how to use it and being prepared for everything from winter to summer is important in the spring because spring can bring you all those conditions in the course of an hour.”