‘Unusual’ conditions spur a particularly treacherous period for avalanches in Colorado mountains
49 slides triggered by humans, nine people caught and three killed between Friday and Sunday
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center is urging people to take extra care when venturing into the backcountry after a deadly period when there were 49 slides triggered by humans, nine people caught and three killed between Friday and Sunday afternoon.
The snowpack is the weakest that experts with CAIC have seen since 2012, according to director Ethan Greene. Colorado is notorious for a weather pattern that brings late-fall snowstorms followed by dry periods. The old layers become weak. When later storms start piling up the old layers are unstable and produce avalanches.
Colorado’s Central Mountains received between 1 and 2 feet of snow since Dec. 10, piling on top of the old, unstable layers.
CAIC avalanche forecasters have stressed lately that usual safeguards aren’t necessarily keeping people safe because of the “unusual” conditions.
“It’s catching experienced people off guard,” Greene said in an interview Monday. “If you’ve been skiing the same area for five years, you may not have seen conditions like this year.”
Colorado averages six deaths by avalanches per season. The three deaths already this season have come with the heart of winter still to come.
“That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the year,” Greene said.
One of the avalanche victims was killed west of Crested Butte on Friday. Jeff “Schnoid” Schneider was “one of the most well-known backcountry travelers in Crested Butte,” according to an article in the Crested Butte News.
The other two victims of avalanches were killed southeast of Ophir Pass, northwest of Silverton in the San Juan Mountains.
All three victims were in their 50s and, by all accounts, experienced backcountry travelers, Greene said. More investigation is underway on their training and backgrounds.
Greene said people of all experience levels have been venturing into the backcountry this season. There are no numbers to verify that actual use is up, although backcountry gear sales have soared. CAIC isn’t trying to scare people away from the backcountry but aims to get them to take precautions.
Avalanche conditions are updated daily at http://www.avalanche.state.co.us/. A nonprofit group called Friends of Colorado Avalanche Information Center is urging backcountry visitors to take a pledge to check the forecast before venturing out.
CAIC issued a news release Sunday urging people to pay special attention to avalanche conditions, which are currently listed as “considerable.”
“People need to recognize we have unusual conditions and their usual practices may not keep them out of harm’s way,” Greene said in the statement. “As we gain more snow in the coming weeks, avalanches could become even more dangerous.”
In the week prior to Sunday, CAIC recorded 380 avalanche reports. There were 108 slides triggered by people.
“There have been a lot of avalanches and a lot of people are getting caught in them,” Greene said in the statement. “The snowpack is below average across the state. Avalanches are mostly small, but very easy to trigger. This week, we have seen avalanches grow in size and they are gong to continue to get bigger as the mountains get more snow.”
On Monday, the CAIC forecast for the Aspen zone elaborated on avalanche activity in the Central Mountains.
“Since Dec. 10, the Central Mountains received 1 to 2 feet of snow,” said the forecast issued Monday by Bo Torrey. “The snowpack before the snow arrived was a loose mess of facets, all that was missing was a slab. Over the last 10 days, as snow arrived and the snowpack developed a slab, we recorded over 100 human-triggered avalanches and more than 230 natural avalanches in the Central Mountains alone, with more each day.”
Expect the slides to keep coming, Torrey’s forecast said, because the snowpack is slow in stabilizing.
With many lingering questions still surrounding the fate of Aspen’s historic Old Powerhouse, City Council decided during Monday’s work session to hold off on providing staff direction on moving the preservation project forward until more information can be presented.