As Aspen’s backcountry ski conditions improve, avalanche risk increases

Aspen Highlands ski patroller Ned Perry leads a crew of volunteer bootpackers on the up track in a section of the G Zones.
Brad Unglert/special to The Aspen Times |


Mountain Rescue Aspen is accepting pre-registration for its annual Avalanche Awareness Workshop on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 13 and 14. The event will feature a classroom session on Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Cameron Mountain Rescue Center at 37925 Highway 82 near the Airport Business Center. The field day will be held Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Aspen Mountain. The participants will learn the fundamentals of avalanche awareness, including hazard evaluation, snow pit demonstration, beacon research, route selection, safe travel and more. The cost is $30. For more information and pre-registration, visit

Patience with Mother Nature is finally paying off.

Backcountry skiers are already flocking to Marble. The G Zones will open in Highland Bowl today thanks to the effort of the ski patrol and volunteer bootpackers.

But with the good comes some bad. Avalanche experts are advising backcountry travelers that conditions are starting to change now that the snow is finally starting to fall.

“The new snow is great to see, but it’s going to make backcountry travel more challenging,” Scott Toepfer, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, wrote Friday morning for the Aspen zone forecast.

The underlying foundation in the snowpack is weak near and above treeline, he said, and the avalanche danger can vary greatly from slope to slope. Where the weak snow exists, it tends to be very weak, he continued.

The biggest areas of concern so far have been north to east aspects, but that’s expected to expand, Toepfer said. The heartbreaker is the slopes that are most inviting are the ones that also tend to be most dangerous, his report added.

“The areas that look the best for riding (Friday) are probably also the most dangerous areas. In areas where the snowpack is deeper, there is a bigger potential for large dangerous avalanches,” Toepfer wrote.

In the Aspen zone, avalanches have been recently reported in Upper Yule Creek in the Marble area and the Cirque Headwall, which wasn’t among the open terrain at Snowmass Ski Area at the time.

As of Friday, the avalanche danger was moderate near and above treeline for the Aspen zone and low below treeline, according to the avalanche center. However, conditions were likely to change fast with heavy snowfall forecasted.

“It remains possible to trigger an avalanche large enough to injure or even kill you in isolated areas (Friday),” the center advised. The full forecast can be found at avalanche/aspen/. That includes a link to a broader discussion of conditions.

The snowpack in the Roaring Fork River watershed varies drastically by location. It was only 56 percent of median as of Friday at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, which operates automated weather stations called Snotel sites. Snowpack was higher in the Crystal River Valley. It was 71 percent of the median at North Lost Trail outside of Marble, 69 percent at Schofield Pass and 67 percent at McClure Pass.

The higher snowpack near Marble has attracted the attention of the growing legions of backcountry skiers. Basalt resident and Marble homeowner George Trantow said he found great snow conditions at Marble Peak on Sunday. “It was up to my hip,” he said. Trantow and his skiing companion proceeded with caution after they spotted a huge fracture line on one aspect.

He said there were 13 vehicles in the parking area so “it was a pretty big day.” He heard even more people were skiing there Saturday.

Meanwhile, the late arrival to winter meant the bootpacking started later than usual in Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands. Patrol Director Mac Smith couldn’t be reached Friday, but tweets from the ski patrol indicated that bootpacking got underway Nov. 29 — about three weeks later than at the start of the 2015-16 season.

Despite the late start, Aspen Skiing Co. says it plans to open G2 through G8 in the Bowl when Highlands opens for the season today.