Favorable conditions in Aspen-area backcountry | AspenTimes.com

Favorable conditions in Aspen-area backcountry

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times
Adam McCurdy skis the Pearl Couloir at Cathedral Peak on April 12.
Matt Lanning/Special to The Aspen Times |

A late-season snowfall and the absence of dust storms have made for favorable conditions in the backcountry as enthusiasts take to the big mountains.

As of Thursday, the snowpack on Independence Pass read 90 percent of average, and conditions so far have been relatively stable.

“Especially with this last snow more recently, I would say it’s likely that we’re going to have really good skiing through May, which is not unusual,” Aspen Expeditions owner Dick Jackson said Wednesday. “Obviously, the skiing got incredibly good … during that last storm cycle. As a result, there’s a lot more snow in the high country, and the skiing’s apparently been pretty darn good.”

Since late March, local skier Matt Lanning has made trips to Richmond Ridge, Castle Creek and Mount Sopris. Stability-wise, he said he hasn’t run into many issues, but he remains concerned about wet slides, given the foot of snow the area received in mid-April.

Though reports of slides in the area have been few this season, Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s forecaster Blase Reardon said Thursday that skiers should carry rescue gear and be prepared for the worst. Right now, he said, there are two concerns. The first is dry, winter-like snow, the dangers of which can be easy to forget. Reardon said that although there may be soft, powdery snow up high, there is still potential for winter-like avalanche conditions below.

“Those are generally going to be about 14, 18 inches down at the bond between the mid-April storms and the old snow,” Reardon said. “And so people want to address that just like they would in the middle of winter.”

In the spring, he said it’s easy to think there are no avalanches, but skiers need to be aware. He suggested looking for slabs and weak layers and proceeding one at a time while keeping partners in sight.

The second concern is spring-like snow, which is more predictable and also dependent on the time of day.

“You want to get out early and ski the snow while it’s still supportable and get back to the trailhead,” Reardon said. “As it softens, your chances of triggering wet, loose slabs are increased.”

Lanning said the general rule in the backcountry, which he attributed to the avalanche center, is if you step out of your ski and your boot sinks in more than your ankle bone or boot top, you shouldn’t be on that snow.

Conditions are updated at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday through the end of May.

So far this year, there has been one reported out-of-bounds avalanche death. Looking at historical data, Reardon said he’s found that people aren’t dying where most may expect — on big mountains such as Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak. Instead, they’re dying in small slides on small, below-treeline slopes. In most cases, Reardon said the person is in a gully and skiing alone.

“Not that you need to be careless on the bigger mountains, but people need to be more vigilant,” Reardon said. “Just because a person is close to home and it doesn’t look as dangerous as the larger slopes around them, they still need to be vigilant.”

The situation Reardon described is almost the same one 64-year-old Marty Gancsos found himself in this year on the west side of Aspen Mountain. The longtime local, who was skiing with a partner, was killed in an out-of-bounds slide.

“This year’s accident is one of many that has those kinds of similar characteristics,” Reardon said.

While it’s difficult to quantify how many skiers are taking backcountry and sidecountry trips annually, Reardon said the sport is continuing to grow in popularity. According to Reardon, backcountry gear is the leading gross segment for ski retailers.

“There’s more and more gear sold each year, and most people will tell you that they see more people in the backcountry,” Reardon said.

Despite the growing segment, avalanche deaths have continued to hover around five or six annually in Colorado, a state that leads the way in avalanche fatalities by a wide margin. According to Colorado Avalanche Information Center statistics, the state recorded 267 deaths between 1950 and 2014. That compares with 142 in Alaska and 116 in Washington. Even since 2004, Colorado deaths outnumber the next two states, Utah and Montana, by a margin of 64 to 40.

Since the 2010 season, there have been three avalanche deaths in the area. Patricia Hileman, a 49-year-old ski patroller, died in December 2012 when she was swept over a cliff during a small slide in the Ship’s Prow Glades at Snowmass. Hileman was skiing in a permanently closed area within the ski-area boundary. The season before that, 43-year-old Keith Ames died in January during an avalanche on Burnt Mountain.

Inside ski boundaries, there were no deaths this year. Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle said recently that he hopes the company’s focus on safety has helped.

“We did see on our guest comment cards throughout the season that their sense of skier safety was higher than it has been, so we look at that as a direct result of our emphasis on safety, with our new signage and speed zones,” Hanle said.