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‘Crappy’ foundation for snowpack increases avalanche risk in Aspen backcountry

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, explains to an Aspen audience Thursday night the conditions that have created a lousy foundation for the snowpack.
Rose Anna Laudicia/The Aspen Times

SKI AREA ISSUES

Aspen Skiing Co. has some of the most welcoming policies in the country for uphilling on the slopes and accessing the backcountry through ski area gates. It wants to keep it that way, according to Rich Burkley, senior vice president, strategy and business development.

Burkley told an audience at a Mountain Rescue Aspen winter safety workshop on Thursday night that only about 10 percent of the ski areas in the U.S. allow “unfettered” access to slopes as Skico does at its four ski areas. The company doesn’t charge a fee for people using climbing skins on their boards or hikers traveling uphill. There are designated routes or time restrictions everywhere but Snowmass, but the company has embraced uphilling.

“To preserve that, that’s one of my goals,” Burkley said. Uphillers can help by following the golden rule of avoiding trails or parts of trails where there is ongoing work by machines — snowcats, snowmobiles and snowmaking equipment. He particularly stressed that uphillers should stay off trails where winch-cat operations are being undertaken. That requires a snowcat on steep slopes to use a thick cable affixed to an anchor.

Burkley also urged uphillers to respect Skico employees and follow any special instructions during encounters. And, finally, pee in the woods, not on the slopes, Burkley said.

Skico is also unique because it is one of the few, if not the only, U.S. ski area operators to allow access to the backcountry through its operational boundaries. There are 36 gates to the backcountry scattered throughout the four ski areas. They are recognizable because of their skull and crossbones with a warning that travelers are leaving the ski area.

Once a skier or rider leaves the ski area, they are on their own in case they encounter a problem, Burkley said. They will have to call 911 and seek help from the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen rather than the ski patrol. The patrol is often a reporting party and assists with a rescue, but it won’t be the primary responder, he said.

Burkley and other speakers stressed that the terrain just outside of ski area boundaries has been mislabeled “side country.” It should be regarded as backcountry because of the dangers involved, they said.

Most of the avalanche deaths in the Aspen area between 1998 and 2019 have come just outside of the ski area boundaries, according to data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. There have been 12 deaths in those areas; four deaths further into the backcountry, three deaths within the ski areas; and three deaths at terrain near backcountry huts.

Tricky and dangerous avalanche conditions will continue to haunt the Aspen backcountry because of a “crappy” foundation of snow leftover from October, according to Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Lazar said seven people have been caught and partially buried in avalanches in the Colorado mountains over the last week, the most recent one outside of Crested Butte on Thursday.

“We haven’t had any in this (Aspen) zone yet but we’ve had them all around the state,” Lazar said during a workshop organized by Mountain Rescue Aspen on safe backcountry travel. Roughly 100 attended the free workshop at MRA’s headquarters. Greg Shaffran, an MRA volunteer who helped organize the event, said another 30 people watched the live stream on MRA’s Facebook page.

The current avalanche conditions were created by a dry spell following ample snowfall in October. The sun and other weather elements broke down the snow to create a persistent weak layer, Lazar said. That weak layer was covered by storms in November and December.

“We started off with a really crappy, junky snowpack that’s going to be living with us for quite some time.” Brian Lazar Deputy director, Colorado Avalanche Information Center

“This is a terrible foundation to build the rest of our snowpack on,” Lazar said.

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Steep slopes facing north to east are the biggest danger zones.

“On lower elevation slopes and on sunny slopes, the October snow largely melted away and we got to start over with our November snowfall,” Lazar said. “On cold, high elevation, shady slopes north and east, the old October snow did not melt away. Now those are the most dangerous slopes.”

He warned that conditions on those steep, north to east aspects probably won’t improve “for the foreseeable future.”

Persistent weak layers create unpredictable avalanche conditions, he said. People don’t get better with experience at predicting the behavior.

“You get smarter. You stay farther away,” Lazar said.

He warned that a skier standing on flat ground, thinking they are safe, can remotely trigger a lot of avalanches during these conditions.

There were 185 avalanches recorded by CAIC between Nov. 25 and Dec 2, including several in the Aspen zone. Many of the slides are relatively small in size because the winter is young and snowpack hasn’t built up yet. The first large, natural slide of the season recorded on Independence Pass occurred on Oct. 24 this year. That contributed to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s decision to close the road earlier than usual, according to Lazar.

“We started off with a really crappy, junky snowpack that’s going to be living with us for quite some time,” he said.

Avalanche conditions are updated daily at the information center’s website at https://avalanche.state.co.us/.

In addition to Lazar, the MRA workshop included a presentation by longtime MRA member and a past president Debby Kelly on gear that groups traveling in the backcountry should carry. Aspen Skiing Co. executive Rich Burkley discussed the company’s uphill and backcountry gate policies (see related story). Famed Carbondale mountaineer Michael Kennedy discussed the human factors involved when venturing into the mountains.

Kennedy urged the crowd not to fall into the trap of overconfidence when they are familiar with terrain. There are too many times when people downplay the avalanche risk because they have skied a particular line or slope so many times without a problem, he said. Conditions always change and can catch the unwary off-guard.

Caution is key for backcountry travel, Kennedy said.

“Lucky is not a good survival strategy,” he said.

He also stressed that people shouldn’t be overconfident simply because they are venturing out with all the right gear.

“In a lot of ways, you have to look at an avalanche beacon as a recovery device,” Kennedy said. “Dial it back a little bit.”

The workshop was part of a series of events MRA is hosting to improve safety of backcountry travelers, both summer and winter.

The raw footage of the workshop can be viewed on MRA’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/mountainrescueaspen/videos/788206551626542/. Edited footage will soon be available, along with other presentations, on MRA’s YouTube page.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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