Wind-loaded snow raises spirits, avalanche danger |

Wind-loaded snow raises spirits, avalanche danger

A windy storm loaded up to 20 inches of snow on local slopes yesterday, sending spirits and the backcountry avalanche danger soaring.

Steeplechase received 12 inches of snow, but strong winds from the south really loaded north-facing slopes, said Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol director Mac Smith.

“Everything that was northern exposure got 20 to 25 inches,” Smith said. “That’s why the Epic flag went up.”

The ski patrol planted the Epic flag at the mountain for only the second time this season. It will continue to go up for truly special conditions.

The powder also piled up at Snowmass, where the Aspen Skiing Co. was hosting about a dozen local reporters and writers for media day. The wind loaded the snow into knee-high pockets in places like Longshot, Reidar’s Glades and the KT Gully traverse.

The Snowmass Ski Patrol threw dynamite charges into the snow-loaded steep terrain throughout the morning and into the afternoon. That was both good news and bad.

“The sound of bombs in the air means we got good snow,” said mountain manager Rob Baxter. The expansive terrain of the Hanging Valley Wall opened at about noon.

But snow on steeps like AMF slid down to the ground, meaning snowpack will have to build again before the popular double-diamond trail opens.

Baxter also feared that high winds swept snow off the Cirque. Winds of 90 mph were recorded early Wednesday morning.

On the flat, protected terrain, Aspen received 6 inches of snow; Snowmass received 7 inches.

A lack of snow in January meant that the snowpack was extremely weak. Wednesday morning’s snow was very heavy. The result was “considerable” danger of avalanches in the backcountry, according to the U.S. Forest Service’s avalanche hotline in Aspen.

Natural releases were possible and human-triggered avalanches were probable, particularly on slopes 35 degrees and greater, at and above tree line, according to the 7:30 a.m. recording. Backcountry travelers were urged to use considerable caution. The avalanche hotline, updated daily, can be reached at 920-1664.

Smith suggested avoiding the backcountry for now and hitting classic slopes like Highland Bowl.

“The backcountry is going to have a big cycle going on,” he said.

Super steep trails like Ozone and White Kitchen in Highland Bowl have enough of a northern exposure that they were among those loaded with 20 inches or more of snow, Smith said.

Since it was drizzling rain downvalley Wednesday morning, he figured many Highlands fans didn’t realize it was an epic day. He said fewer than 1,000 skiers and riders visited Highlands Wednesday, and about 300 trips into terrain such as Temerity and Highland Bowl were recorded.

The snowcat that takes customers halfway back to the bowl was in the shop for repairs Wednesday, so adventurers earned their turns by trudging through the deep snow.

Smith and Snowmass’ Baxter expressed optimism that the storm signaled a turnaround in what has developed into a dry season.

“We’re finally getting soft snow on top of soft snow,” rejoiced Smith.

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