CAIC avalanche forecasters say late snow could mean more stable snowpack
November 3, 2014
While a mild fall may have led to a slow start to ski season for area resorts, Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters said it could actually be good news for backcountry travel this season.
"What you want it to do is start snowing and not stop," said Ethan Greene, director of the center. "Having snow-free mountains right now is not a bad thing for us."
Deputy Director Brian Lazaar agreed.
"From my perspective, we'd rather see a delayed start," he said.
In each of the past two winters, Colorado has seen early snows followed by longer dry spells, the result being a weak base layer in the snowpack that made slopes vulnerable to large, less predictable, deep-slab avalanches later in the winter.
When snow is followed by a longer, drier spell, it will create a similar weak layer. Then, any snow that piles on top of it will be increasingly susceptible to a slide. Having that layer at the very bottom of the snowpack can create trouble throughout a season, as it did the past two winters. A lack of early-season snow, therefore, could mean a more stable snowpack later in the season.
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While there may not be a direct correlation, Colorado exceeded its season average of six avalanche fatalities in each of the past two winters. The state reported eight last season and 11 the previous year. Colorado also annually accounts for one-third of avalanche fatalities nationwide.
Greene and deputy director Brian Lazaar both said that deep-slab avalanches are less predictable than any avalanche risk created by a standard storm cycle.
The snowpack in a storm-related avalanche cycle tends to settle a few days after a storm, whereas a weak layer deep in the snowpack will continue to be a risk.
"With a storm cycle, you can see it," Greene said. "With a deep-slab cycle, it doesn't care what the weather is doing."
And while deep-slab avalanches are harder to trigger, they are more likely to be deadly when they do release because of the sheer volume of snow involved.
"My favorite seasons are when it starts snowing and doesn't stop," because it makes for a more consistent snowpack, Greene said.
While there has not been much snow so far this season, both Greene and Lazaar recommended paying attention to the snow that has lingered on north-facing slopes.
"The slopes that have snow on them now could end up being the most problematic," Lazaar said.
Greene recommended that avid backcountry travelers take advantage of current conditions to get up to higher elevations and scout areas they might want to ski when the snow does come.
"It's a good time to get out in the mountains and see that," he said of checking areas that could become problems later in the season.
Proper precautions are always important, and he suggested putting long-term backcountry goals over single-season ones. If a skier is considering a backcountry bucket list, slope conditions might delay that accomplishment beyond a single season.
"There may be certain years that those slopes won't be safe all year," he said.
Above all, both forecasters emphasized the importance of education with regard to backcountry travel and the old "know before you go" mentality. With more skiers seeking out backcountry lines, a proper knowledge base is increasingly important.
ANNUAL FUNDRAISER DINNER
The Friends of CAIC will host teir seventh annual CAIC Benefit Bash dinner, raffle and silent auction Nov. 8. Tickets for the event are $40 and include dinner, beer and access to a gear raffle and silent auction as well as live music from Shakedown Street, a Grateful Dead cover band.
"The Benefit Bash is the largest event we have," Friends of CAIC Director Aaron Carlson said. "It's the winter kickoff party for Colorado in a lot of ways."
Last year the benefit raised $100,000 for the Avalanche Information Center. Tickets and more information are available through http://www.friendsofcaic.org. The event typically sells out early, but $50 day-of tickets might be available.