Andersen: Snow up to here!
Cooper Means punched his 8-foot-long probe pole into the snowpack just below Pearl Pass two weeks ago. He finally hit bottom after three tries, and then, only the tip of his probe was showing.
It doesn’t take a probe to know that a huge snowpack covers the Elk Mountains. And it’s not just at the highest passes. The snowpack is deep from the midrange up, and chances are considerable for summer flooding.
Cooper tested his probe while skiing back over Pearl from the Friends’ Hut during a multi-day hut trip where we skimmed over terra firma on a crystalline blanket of white. Everywhere we skied, the snowpack was deep, dense and heavy.
At the Goodwin-Greene Hut (11,680 feet), the snow stood about 8 feet deep on the roof. Snow almost buried the stovepipe of the cabin, which had cavelike qualities because many of its windows were at about mid-snowpack.
It took six of us four hours to shovel that roof. Sheering off cooler-sized chunks was a challenge. Once they got sliding down the metal roof, you had to dodge to the side while carefully guiding them with a shovel.
Considering water content in the consistently deep pack, the spring runoff of 2014 may be something to remember. Given regular additions to snow depth this month, the June runoff could be a gusher if the summer heat comes all at once. Whitewater boaters are salivating already over visions of huge cresting waves as record flows engorge our streams.
Friends from Crested Butte along for the hut trip described historic snowfalls throughout the winter that made their sidewalks into tunnels. They spoke reverently of one enormous storm cycle that left 84 inches — 7 feet of snow — over four or five days. That was enough to bury the town, Pompeii-like.
Imagine those stalwart Crested Butteicians stuck in frozen poses while the snow built up around them. Future archaeologists might puzzle over an uncovered townie with studded tires, the rider dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt and a Peruvian cap, a Hacky Sack in his pocket.
Checking on the Colorado Snotel website, the deepest pack was on Scofield Pass. As of March 18, the ground was covered by 100 inches of snow, converting to 36.5 inches of snow-water equivalent. That’s over 8 feet of snow on level ground and lots of water to hit the headwaters of the Crystal and East rivers.
With snow this deep, avalanches have run with incredible volume and violence. Even snow dropping off tree limbs could be a peril. A shedding spruce or fir could unload 50, 80, 100 pounds in one big lump. Tree dumpings like that could flatten you.
One recorded avalanche on the west side of Kebler Pass, along the faces of Owen and Ruby peaks, reportedly ran one mile and left a deposition zone 100 feet deep. That’s a backcountry skier’s nightmare.
As we finished our hut trip, rocketing down the Pearl Pass Road luge run, we crossed a massive slide that had ripped down the Kellogg Chute, running several thousand vertical feet to the valley floor.
Two mature aspen groves were mowed down like blades of grass. A pond, just off the road where people fish for trout in the summer, was completely scooped out by the slide. All that was left was a dry pit. Small animal tracks were evidence that those unfortunate trout have become sushi to some lucky carnivores.
Skiing through the backcountry on a snowpack like this is not to be taken lightly. While the pack is so dense and heavy that it feels impervious to the gnat-like weight of a human, if the slides run in deep slabs, they are lethally destructive. No Avilung or inflatable wings are going to save you from that kind of tumult.
While being in the wrong place at the wrong time is not something you want to visualize, there are always some who ski the riskiest lines, like Maroon Bowl and Garrett Peak.
Better to wait until June, when there is an avalanche of water hitting our creeks and rivers. Perhaps boaters are best suited to experience the full snowpack immersion.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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