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Keep guard, even in less avalanche-prone Garfield County backcountry

Large avalanches released spontaneously sometime around the first day of the new year on north and east aspects of Chair Mountain near Marble
Courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center

While some of the favorite backcountry winter spots surrounding Glenwood Springs are not as prone to avalanches as the nearby higher elevations, avalanche experts warn against developing a false sense of security.

“The best advice is to treat each season as a new one,” said Brian Lazar, deputy director for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).

“Even if you’re someplace where you’ve never seen an avalanche before, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen this year,” he said.



Several popular spots for backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, or snowmobiling in the vicinity of Glenwood Springs and Rifle have seen avalanche activity in given years.

And, during a winter that has already had two avalanche deaths in the Colorado high country following a series of snowstorms over the holiday stretch, this could be that year for other parts of the Western Slope, also.




Though most of the terrain in Garfield County — including the Flat Tops and areas west and south of Sunlight Mountain Resort — is not as steep as some of the popular backcountry destinations in neighboring Pitkin, Eagle, and Gunnison counties, there are plenty of danger spots, Lazar said.

As of 4:30 p.m. Thursday, the CAIC’s avalanche forecast zone north of Glenwood Springs had a “considerable” avalanche danger below, near, and above treeline, as did the areas south, west, and east of town. 

While avalanche warnings have been pulled back following an active couple of weeks to close out the old year, danger still exists, Lazar said.

“We’re just coming out of a pretty dangerous avalanche period after back-to-back winter storms that caused rapid stress to the snowpack,” he said. “We don’t expect a lot of natural occurring avalanches going into this weekend, but there are still a lot of slopes out there that are close to the breaking point and just waiting for human trigger.”

That can include some of the short but steep slopes in the Flat Tops, as well as in the vicinity of Williams Peak and south toward McClure Pass, including the popular Huntsman Ridge area. 

“As you move into Garfield County, you don’t have as much avalanche terrain, and there are fewer people to trigger slides,” Lazar said. “But, any of those areas can have slides, and there are a number of slopes that are conducive to producing avalanches.”

Historically, dating back to 1950, Pitkin County has had the most avalanche deaths of any Colorado county, at 47, followed by Summit County at 41.

Garfield County has only recorded three avalanche deaths during that same time period, but two of those have occurred in the last dozen years or so, Lazar said.

“It’s less frequent out in those areas, but it does happen, and we’ve seen some natural slides that were certainly big enough to kill somebody,” he said.

The best safeguards, he said, are to always check the avalanche forecast before heading out into the backcountry and to make sure to have the basic avalanche gear (probes, shovels, and beacons).

Post Independent interim Managing Editor and senior reporter John Stroud can be reached at jstroud@postindependent.com or at 970-384-9160.