Local snowpack weakening sooner than usual | AspenTimes.com

Local snowpack weakening sooner than usual

A large avalanche on Maroon Creek Road has closed the popular route to snowmobiles and exemplified just how unpredictable the snowpack is this winter.

The U.S. Forest Service officially closed the road to snowmobiles last Friday, although a large snow slide a week or so before made travel next to impossible anyway.

“We haven’t had any big ones like that [on Maroon Creek Road] for quite a few years now,” said Jim Stark, assistant district ranger for the Forest Service in Aspen.

The slide covered the road slightly upvalley from the East Maroon trailhead. Forestry technician Tim Lamb estimated the avalanche covered a 200-foot-long section of the road with snow and debris 20 feet deep. The slide ran a considerable distance down to the creek.

“Trying to go over it was like going across an ice boulder field,” said Lamb.

T-Lazy-7 had already stopped operating its guided snowmobile trips to Maroon Lake because of the avalanche threat, according to Stark.

No one was believed to be caught in the slide. The road is closed to vehicles at T-Lazy-7, but the route is popular with backcountry travelers.

The slide is notable because it signifies just how rotten the snowpack is this season.

Even with significantly less snow than normal, avalanches have occurred in areas where they haven’t been witnessed since the winter of 1995, according to experts. That was the last winter of above average snowfall.

Lamb said he didn’t believe there had been an avalanche near the East Maroon trailhead since 1995. That was also the year that a snow slide wiped out facilities at the upper campground near Maroon meadow.

Lamb said the Maroon Creek Road snow slide probably occurred during a severe cycle last month, when the rotten snowpack couldn’t handle close to two feet of fresh snow.

A woman was killed March 14 when she skied out of bounds on the back of Aspen Mountain. A man was killed the same day while skiing with his family and friends near the Lindley Hut, south of Aspen. Rescuers reported that the snowpack on the route to the hut was “scary,” according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Dale Atkins of the CAIC wrote in yesterday’s avalanche report that warm days and mild nights are creating “plenty” of wet loose and wet slab releases.

“When average temperatures stay above freezing for several days, wet slides can be expected,” he wrote.

The conditions are strange enough that they could confuse even veteran backcountry travelers.

“The relatively shallow snowpack is turning isothermal and losing strength earlier this season and sooner in the day than in typical years,” Atkins wrote.

The CAIC’s report rated the avalanche danger for all mountains as low in the early morning, becoming moderate by afternoon with pockets of considerable on east, south and west aspects due to thaw instability. “On high elevation northwest to northeast aspects where the snow remains cold and dry, the backcountry danger remains moderate due to deep-slab concerns on slopes 35 degrees and steeper,” the report said.

The warm day and night temperatures are eating up the Aspen area’s snowpack. The snowpack for the Roaring Fork River drainage is only 71 percent of normal, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

At the computerized snow-measuring station on Independence Pass, the snowpack was only 67 percent of normal as of April 1, according to the snow survey Web site.

Schofield Pass showed the highest snowpack in the drainage, but even that was only 79 percent of normal.

The Nast Lake site, up the Fryingpan Valley, had a snowpack only 36 percent of normal.

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