Lauren Glendenning
lglendenning@cmnm.org

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January 12, 2012
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Change may be in store for Vail Valley weather

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - The snow news the valley has been waiting for is finally here - sort of.

The storm track pattern for storms heading into the United States from the Pacific Ocean appears to be shifting south, which is great news for northern ski resorts in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana - and possibly good news for ski resorts in the northern part of Colorado.

The storm track has been following a path this winter that has sent Pacific storms entering North America through British Columbia and Alberta before turning south in Saskatchewan and down through North Dakota and Minnesota, and then following an eastern path across the Midwest and the East. But as of Jan. 16, the path appears to be changing. The new track shows storms entering around Oregon and continuing east and slightly south - the results for Colorado, however, will depend on each individual storm, said Joel Gratz, a meteorologist who runs the powder forecast website opensnow.com.

"The overall weather pattern for the western United States is definitely changing next week compared to what they were over the last two months," Gratz said. "Unfortunately, weather patterns don't detail powder days."

But a change in the weather pattern means "slightly more favorable" conditions for better snow in Colorado, Gratz said, and even slightly better is music to the ears of many local skiers and snowboarders.

The pattern changes show more certainty for snow for the north, so it's a waiting game to see whether that snow materializes for Colorado, Gratz said.

"Next week is what starts to make me pull my hair out because we're so close to possibly getting some snow," Gratz said. "That (weather pattern) shift is going to happen - all the models are on board - it's definitely going to happen, but whether that shift is ultimately really, really good for Colorado or just kind of a little bit better (isn't certain)."

Any shift is good news, though. Backcountry snowboarder and mountaineer Zach Taylor, of Avon, said he's "psyched to see all the patterns changing."

"The likelihood of us getting snow increasing is definitely exciting," Taylor said.

Taylor also knows that a lot of new snow brings dangers along with it. Because of the way winter has turned out so far, there are weak layers of snow that will become prime avalanche terrain once heavier snow falls on top. Taylor said all the weak, unstable snow in the snowpack right now is a big cause for concern if and when larger snowstorms hit.

"We're going to see massive avalanche cycles if (storms) materialize," Taylor said. "It is something I am worried about."

Taylor taught an avalanche class behind Beaver Creek a few days ago and skinned up the Bald Spot. He is well trained and can recognize the dangers right away. A foot or two of snow would be enough to create really dangerous avalanche conditions, he said.

"There may be a period of time where I won't even go to East Vail, period, or out of Beaver Creek, period," Taylor said. "Depending on what happens, I might just not go into the backcountry at all."

Coming from a guy like Taylor, who has climbed all of the state's 14,000-foot mountain peaks and has snowboarded down about half of those peaks, it's obvious the danger could be real.

Ethan Greene, director at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said there are places where the danger is already increasing, but a foot of snow in a 24-hour period, for example, "could change things significantly."

"We're actually in a pretty bad set-up for when it does start snowing again," Greene said.

Greene said there's also a concern this season for avalanches being triggered in odd ways.

"One thing we're worried about is avalanches from relatively low angle terrain - areas you might consider safe in some years might not be safe if we go into a big storm cycle coming up," Greene said. "It's not going to be very consistent. There's a complex pattern in the layers in the snow right now. You'll see safe areas in close proximity to areas that are very dangerous."

Even a few inches of snow that fell around the state Wednesday - Vail Mountain reported 6 inches and Beaver Creek reported 4 inches - was enough to change the avalanche danger from moderate to considerable. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported wind slabs about 1 foot thick on northeast, east, southeast and south aspects as of Thursday morning. The center reported a low danger below tree line, but said backcountry travelers should still look for unstable snow.

That's the key piece of advice people like Taylor follow - he said too often people make the mistake of looking for stable snow rather than unstable snow.

"You have to look for signs of instability, not for signs of stability - you can always find the stability," Taylor said. "Always err on the side of caution; read the avalanche report every day before you go out."

Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or lglendenning@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Jan 12, 2012 11:45PM Published Jan 12, 2012 11:43PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.