Experts warn of early season avalanches
VAIL — Vail skier Palmer Hoyt was getting his first Colorado turns in early this year on St. Mary’s Glacier outside of Idaho Springs a few weeks ago.
The snow wasn’t great, he admitted. The group was on the permanent snowfield for a magazine photo shoot, and the limited snow confined the shoot to a small area.
“We had to work to make it look good,” he said.
Still, he thinks that in the next month he’ll venture out for some backcountry skiing on St. Mary’s or Berthoud Pass, and he’s not alone — the early season snowfall has had some diehards hiking or skinning to higher elevations in search of some runs.
However, Hoyt, as well as avalanche experts, caution that backcountry enthusiasts should know that slides are still possible, and that early season skiing poses its own set of risks.
“Anytime there’s snow to ski, there can be an avalanche,” Hoyt said. “It’s easy for people to get over enthusiastic and get themselves into situations that they aren’t capable of handling. Plus, stuff will get covered and make it look like it’s skiable, when it’s not.”
Avalanche expert and instructor Mike Duffy said one of the most common questions he’s asked is how much snow is needed for an avalanche.
“I say, ‘Enough snow to ride, enough to slide,’” Duffy said. “People like to hike up high and ski chutes in the early season. Thing is, if it does avalanche, the rocks aren’t covered and you see people suffer trauma. It’s a misconception that you need a deep snowpack for an avalanche.”
Fall avalanche warnings
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, there are already 2-3 feet of base snow on some of the highest spots in the state. Their forecasters warn that nearly every fall, eager riders, late season hikers and even hunters are caught off guard when they trigger avalanches.
Recent early season storms have left some snow below treeline, and while avalanches are less frequent in the fall, they are always possible.
“Most of this snow melted off, but some did linger on north aspects and on old summer snowfields,” said the center’s October report. “The snow has started forming weak layers and slabs. Start thinking avalanche if you have plans to travel into the high country.”
Forecasters caution that backcountry users shouldn’t be fooled by the amount of snow on the ground, and just because you see grass and sticks coming up from the snow doesn’t mean the slope won’t slide on a steep slope.
“Remember, all you need is a slab resting on a weak layer of snow to create conditions that can produce avalanches. The ground can easily act as a bed surface, even if it is only a few inches below the snow surface,” according to the CAIC report.
It’s too early to tell what the snowpack will look like for the coming winter, but Duffy said the past few years have brought high avalanche danger, thanks to early season snow followed by periods of no snow.
“The best thing for stability is for it to be consistently cold and snow through December,” he said. “It’s when we go long periods without snow that it becomes faceted and leaks and creates weak spots in the snowpack in the future.”
“Faceted” snow generally doesn’t stick very well to itself and is sometimes referred to as “sugar.” It makes for a weak foundation and is slide-prone.
Duffy encourages backcountry users to start getting prepared in the early season by taking avalanche safety classes and getting the proper equipment — a beacon, shovel and probe.
Check reports and avalanche ratings on the CAIC site (https://avalanche.state.co.us) before you head out. Forecasters will resume regular reports beginning Nov. 1.
“The best thing people can do is check the avalanche report on a regular basis,” Duffy said. “Don’t just look at the rating, but look at the snowpack discussion. You can learn quite a bit.”
Get signed up for an avalanche course either through Colorado Mountain College, Apex Mountain School or Silverton Avalanche School.
Duffy will also be holding a weekend-long backcountry boot camp for beginners in the backcountry at the Vagabond Ranch near Granby. Keep an eye out on the Colorado Mountain College course listings for details.