Code Orange in the backcountry |

Code Orange in the backcountry

Allyn Harvey

Usually this column addresses the conditions and happenings on the ski slopes on Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass.

Today, it is going to provide extended excerpts from the daily avalanche report issued by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The discussion below is about conditions in the backcountry, not the four ski mountains maintained and managed by the Aspen Skiing Co.

I decided to use an extended version of the avalanche report that we usually boil down to just one or two paragraphs and publish underneath this column because of the statewide upgrade in danger, starting today, for backcountry skiers.

“Variability is the key word for describing this season’s mountain-snow cover. Even on the same slope observers sometimes report conditions ranging from thick hard slabs to thin, faceted, sugar snow.

“Usually this time of year the main problem is a weak snowpack base caused by advanced faceted snow called depth hoar. While some of this snow exists, the real problem in many mountain areas are midpack layers of weak, sugar sandwiched between either stout sun crusts, rain crusts, or thin wind slabs.

“Stability tests have shown easy and clean shears and the recent natural activity verifies the general weak snowpack. Most of the critical ingredients for avalanches are present (besides steep slopes, these include weak layers, and triggers); the missing ingredient is the slab or a cohesive layer of new snow, but it’s on the way.

“With a good snow-producing storm taking aim at Colorado, the backcountry avalanche danger for all mountain areas will be on the increased. So for Friday, the backcountry avalanche danger in the southern and central mountains is considerable for all elevations and aspects with pockets of high danger near and above tree line on northwest, northeast and east aspects.

“As we head into the weekend, triggered releases will be probable to even likely. The most suspect terrain in all mountain areas will be steep slopes and gullies, especially the wind-drifted slopes.

“On Friday backcountry travelers should avoid slopes 35 degrees and steeper and use extra caution on less-steep slopes. By Saturday even slopes down to 30 degrees should probably be avoided too. Be alert for shooting cracks and collapsing – whumphing sounds, as well as natural activity.”

Avalanche danger details provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. For more information, call 920-1664 or visit


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