Storm cycle provides needed boost to Aspen-area snowpack

Snowpack at Roaring Fork River headwaters improved 25% by Monday

A young skier heads down the 1A side of Aspen Mountain on Monday. Winter storms are slated to head into town through the week. Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk and Snowmass all received 4-6 inches of snow overnight Sunday, where as Highland Bowl received 30 inches through the weekend. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The waves of snowstorms that rolled over the Aspen-area between Thursday and Sunday brought the kind of snow that can make a dent in the ongoing drought.

The heavy, wet snow boosted the snow pack by 25% near the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, 32% at the headwaters of the Fryingpan River and 64% at the headwaters of the Crystal River in just four days.

“It’s definitely huge, especially considering how dry the season started,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Since Dec. 7, we’ve more than doubled the snowpack.”

The snowpack is at about 44% of the median peak value. It typically doesn’t hit 50% of peak until late January.

“We are ahead of the curve,” Wetlaufer said, “and the outlook this week is encouraging.”

Forecasters at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center marveled on Christmas Day about the high moisture content of the snow that fell on Schofield Pass (located between Marble and Crested Butte) and elsewhere in the central mountains during this extended storm cycle.

“The western portions of the central mountains picked up historic amounts of snow-water equivalent,” wrote the center’s Ben Pritchett, referring to the amount of water at a specific site if the snow melted.

“The Schofield Snotel station received five-and-a-half inches of (snow-water equivalent) in the last 48 hours, which ranks up there as one of the largest short-term loads since the station was installed in 1984,” Pritchett wrote in his report Saturday.

The flip side of the big gains in snowfall is the increased avalanche risk in the backcountry.

“Even in the areas that ‘only’ picked up two inches of (snow water equivalent), the snowpack is still reeling from that rapid and dense load,” Pritchett noted.

The avalanche danger for the Aspen zone was rated “considerable,” or 3 out of 5, on Monday by the avalanche center. The danger will rise to “high,” or 4 out of 5, on Tuesday with the next storm, the center said. It could remain high for the foreseeable future because of a snowy forecast. forecasted between 9 and 18 inches between Monday and dawn Thursday with another big storm potentially arriving on New Year’s Eve. “This looks like a good storm my friends,” forecaster Cory Gates wrote on Monday.

Long bouts of snow are nothing new in the Rocky Mountains but consecutive days of powder are still reason to celebrate. According to Aspen Skiing Co.’s snow reports, Aspen Highlands reaped 42 inches of snow from Dec. 23 through 5 a.m. Monday morning. Snowmass pulled in 29 inches while Aspen Mountain was right behind at 27 inches. Buttermilk managed an impressive 22 inches over that stretch.

The automated Snotel site on Independence Pass shot up from 80% of median on Dec. 23 to 100% of median on Monday. The NRCS uses a 30-year median between 1990 and 2020.

The snowpack at the Ivanhoe site on the upper Fryingpan improved from 96% of median on Dec. 23 to 127% on Monday.

The biggest gainer was Schofield Pass, which soared from just 82% of median on Dec. 23 to 135% on Monday.

The moisture is vital after a prolonged drought kept the majority of Colorado in its grip for most of 2021. The U.S. Drought Monitor designated all of Pitkin County in the moderate drought category as of Dec. 23. An updated drought map will be released Thursday.

Wetlaufer said the past two springs have brought decreased stream flows so it would be relief to have a higher than average snowpack heading into runoff.


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