New snow increases avalanche danger
December 12, 2016
EAGLE COUNTY — Lots of fresh snow on crusty, older snow is a reliable recipe for avalanche danger. And that's what we have.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center Monday issued an avalanche warning for the area around Vail, as well as Summit County and much of the higher elevations of the Front Range. The center classifies "high" danger as "Very dangerous avalanche conditions. Travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended."
That danger is supposed to moderate Tuesday, but there's more snow headed into the region this week, which means the avalanche danger will evolve.
Still not all of the backcountry has turned into a danger zone.
Mike Cooperstein, a forecaster at the center, said the most hazardous areas are slopes of 30 degrees or more, as well as slopes prone to wind-driven snow.
Those zones are more likely for either naturally-triggered or human-triggered avalanches, Cooperstein said.
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It's still early in the season, but Cooperstein said there have been reports of a few naturally-triggered slides, as well as a handful of human-caused avalanches. Fortunately, "everybody's been OK so far," Cooperstein said.
The information center is a state agency, and has become busier over the years as backcountry recreation has become more popular.
As a result, the center tends to get more calls, emails and web searches when parts of the internet map have flashing red areas.
That's a good thing. But Cooperstein and others say even occasional backcountry users should check the website every day.
"People should look at that site every single day so they get a broader perspective," Dan Brewster said. Brewster is the owner of Haute Route, an Avon shop that sells backcountry and other gear.
Brewster and Cooperstein both encouraged people headed into the backcountry to have the proper gear. For Cooperstein, that includes an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe pole. He also recommended an avalanche air bag, a piece of gear that can create an air pocket around someone buried in a slide.
THE MORE YOU KNOW
Cooperstein and Brewster also encouraged people headed into the backcountry to get as educated as possible.
Kreston and Kelli Rohrig teach avalanche awareness courses at Colorado Mountain College and for Paragon Guides. Through Paragon, the Rohrigs are also teaching an avalanche awareness course to local high schoolers.
The college classes are particularly popular, Kreston Rohrig said.
"With the popularity of backcountry skiing, it's becoming the thing to do," Rohrig said. "Responsible people are going out to get educated."
And education is the goal. Rohrig said the classes he leads are usually a mixture of people who are just getting into backcountry sports and experienced users.
"Ideally, they'd get the education and then go out," Rohrig said, quickly adding that everyone is welcome in class.
In an effort to broaden the knowledge base of backcountry users, the Rohrigs, several shop owners and others have created a new Facebook group, the Community Backcountry Project. That group provides information and educational tips to users.
That's something most backcountry shops already do — Haute Route posts updates from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in the store every day. But Brewster said with the Facebook group, people can share information and experiences directly with other users.
That can be important on days like Monday, Brewster said.
"Today it's something to be hyper-sensitive about," Brewster said. "But even on days when (the danger) is moderate, there's no reason to let your guard down."
With all that in mind, Rohrig said he'd still head into the backcountry on a day like Monday — but he'd be careful about where he went.
"If you manage your terrain, you can go out," Rohrig said. "You don't go out and ski a big line in East Vail today … but that's the point — knowing where danger exists and avoiding it at all costs on a day like today."
As more people move to Colorado and the Vail Valley, more people are heading into the backcountry every season.
"As the resorts become more crowded, it's pushing people outward to find untracked terrain," Rohrig said. "It's a pretty special environment out there."