Snowstorm refreshes ski area slopes, creates high backcountry avalanche risk |

Snowstorm refreshes ski area slopes, creates high backcountry avalanche risk

Up to 10 inches of new snow expected on ski area slopes by dawn Thursday

Staff report
Joey Xia snowboards down Tiehack after an eight-inch snowfall overnight in Aspen on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. Xia is a partner with the Jing restaurants and comes into town for the winters. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The storm cycle that has covered the Aspen-Snowmass ski slopes with up to two feet of snow in the past 48 hours has also created high avalanche risk in the backcountry.

Snowmass was the big winner in this storm with 25 inches reported since Monday, including 19 inches of windblown snow falling overnight Tuesday.

The big dump prompted the Colorado Avalanche Information Center to issue an avalanche warning for the Aspen, Gunnison, Grand Mesa and San Juan zones.

“Heavy snowfall and strong winds produced very dangerous avalanche conditions,” the center reported Wednesday morning. “Large avalanches will be very easy to trigger and some will run naturally. Travel in the backcountry is not recommended.”

The avalanche conditions are expected to remain at the “high” level on Thursday. That is a rating of 4 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 the highest.

During the “dry spell” in January and February, there was a weakening on the snow surface. Now there is a heavy load of new snow on that weak surface, CAIC forecaster Ian Fowler wrote in the Wednesday report.

“A potent cocktail of avalanche conditions is being created by the snowfall amounts, the strong south-westerly wind, and the fact the slabs are building on a weak surface,” Fowler said.

Skiers take turns through fresh powder under the Tiehack lift in Aspen on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“That weak surface that was sluffing is (now) capped with various thicknesses of slab and this significant new load,” Fowler continued. “The avalanche that you trigger on this weak layer will most likely be large and encompass a greater area of the slope than you may expect.”

The report warned that avalanches could be triggered from flatter ground below steeper slopes and from great distances. That requires reassessment of what qualifies as a “safe” zone, according to Fowler.

Fortunately, the ski area slopes have plenty of powder to keep skiers and riders occupied. Aspen Mountain reported 7 inches of fresh powder on Wednesday morning. Aspen Highlands clocked in with 10 inches while Buttermilk reported 8.

Snowmass day skier parking lots were full by 10:30 a.m. after the ski area received 19 inches of powder. forecast another 5 to 10 inches of snow on the Aspen-Snowmass slopes by dawn Thursday.