Hike of the Week: Stay aware in the backcountry as snowpack precariously moves into avalanche conditions | VailDaily.com

Hike of the Week: Stay aware in the backcountry as snowpack precariously moves into avalanche conditions

Vail Daily reader Tali Landsman submitted this photo of one of the avalanches that closed Interstate 70 for hours in March this year.
Tali Landsman | Special to the Daily

It’s truly amazing what a difference a few days can make to our mountain landscape. As the clouds lift from this past storm cycle, the lifts are spinning at Vail and Beaver Creek, a layer of snow coats the valley floor and the spring-like conditions of just a week ago seem like a distant memory. While the resort experience at Vail and Beaver Creek is what our valley is known for, many (myself included) still enjoy the solitude of the backcountry, itching to break out snowshoes and skis and explore.

After last March’s historic avalanche cycle, the power of our mountains is still fresh in our minds. While the snow is not yet deep enough to produce avalanches of the scale seen last spring, our snowpack has quietly been setting up in a very similar fashion to last year.

While we were enjoying an extended mountain biking and hiking season this November, high on the northern and eastern faces of our mountains, October’s snow has been deteriorating. This weak and sugary snow, also known as faceted snow, is being buried by the more cohesive mid-winter snowpack that is currently falling. This sets up like a layer of fragile champagne glasses supporting a heavy table—break one glass and the table collapses.

This is a very similar layer of snow — a persistent weak layer— to what we saw last March causing the unprecedented avalanche cycle. With a couple of feet of new snow falling in the mountains over the past week, Colorado’s infamous persistent weak layer is back in play. Whether you take to the mountains on snowshoes or skis, it is time to start checking your regional avalanche forecast and making wise terrain choices.

Every year hikers and snowshoers find themselves unwittingly traveling through avalanche terrain. Thanks to YouTube videos, we typically think of avalanche terrain as the wide-open alpine slopes that you’ve seen release large and destructive avalanches in YouTube videos. But that’s not the only place that could see danger. Steep road cuts, isolated roll-overs and valley bottom trails can all be subject to avalanche danger under the right conditions. Many of the popular hiking trails in our valley, such as Booth Creek, Uneva Peak and even East Lake Creek travel through avalanche terrain.

Before venturing into the backcountry take the time to attend a local avalanche awareness seminar, and always remember to check the avalanche forecast from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center for the Vail/Summit zone at avalanche.state.co.us.

If you’re interested diving deeper into the science of Colorado’s Snowpack, keep an eye on Walking Mountains’ backcountry snowshoe schedule. We will be offering regular snowshoe hikes focused on snow science and how this applies to avalanches and Colorado’s winter wildlife. Please note that these are not avalanche education programs and do not substitute for Avalanche Awareness or Avalanche Level 1 courses.

Email hike@walkingmountains.org for more information on these and similar programs.

Nathan Boyer-Rechlin is the community outreach coordinator for Walking Mountains Science Center. For more information on this hike and others with Walking Mountains, you can reach him at 970-827-9725, ext. 144, or nathanbr@walkingmountains.org.

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