Once-in-a-decade snowpack makes for dangerous conditions in the backcountry
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In an “extremely close call” in the backcountry east of Vail on Saturday, a snowboarder got caught in an avalanche that carried him through the trees and buried him under about a foot and a half of snow.
The AvaLung breathing system he had and transceiver his partner used to find him — which took about 15 minutes — likely saved his life.
Colorado is seeing a once-in-a-decade snowpack that has not been this bad since 2012, according to Eric Green, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The poor snowpack has also been deadly, with the 15 deaths in the first week of February in the U.S. being the most recorded since 1910. Eight of the deaths were Coloradans.
“We see these conditions about once every 10 years,” Green said in the center’s Presidents Day update. “Avalanches are running wider than you expect and crossing multiple terrain features. In some cases, they’re running the full length and width of the avalanche path.”
All mountainous regions in Colorado are under level 3 — considerable — avalanche risks, and there is a Special Avalanche Advisory in effect until Monday night. The risk will likely remain high for several days as more snow is expected to fall. There were almost 30 avalanches observed Saturday alone.
In the Steamboat Springs and Flat Tops region of the state, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center warns that recent snowfall has settled into a thick, dense slab resting on top of weaker layers from earlier in the season.
“Use extreme caution or avoid traveling on slopes steeper than 30 degrees, especially around nasty terrain traps like cliffs and gullies,” the center wrote in the summary for the Steamboat and Flat Tops region. “Avalanches have the potential to fail to ground and will be very hard to escape.”
Dan Gilchrist, a team leader for Routt County Search and Rescue, said the backcountry terrain is deceiving now because people are skiing on an upper layer, and they don’t know if the lower, older areas formed early in the season will hold up.
“The thing with the snowpack is that it is so weak down low that the extra weight and load and wind can make slides happen,” Gilchrist said. “Extra cautious this year with all the accidents that we have had, you just need to treat it with extra respect, I think.”
The most recent snowfall was wetter and heavier than it has been recently, which Gilchrist said can make avalanches bigger when they do slide.
On Saturday, a 150-meter wide avalanche was triggered on Buffalo Pass by a snowcat about 70 meters away from the crown. The snow ranged from 3 to 12 feet deep, and it ran to ground. Luckily, there were no injuries in this slide. The day before, skiers had purposefully triggered two other avalanches, hopefully reducing the risk for the next travelers through the area.
Kreston Rohrig, who forecasts the northern mountain’s avalanche risk for the center, said despite there not being obvious signs of instability like shooting cracks and loud collapses, that does not mean things are “game on” for the backcountry slopes.
There are now “thick cohesive slabs built on more aspects and elevations,” Rohrig said, where until now, the slab avalanche problem was concentrated on wind-drifted slopes and above the tree line. “Now, the problem is much more widespread.
“We now have a supportive and dangerous slab at all elevations,” Rohrig said. “Now, we have a dangerous slab, weak layer combination below tree line and in previously thin areas.”
It will be tough for the weak or junk snow in these areas to support the weight of new slabs and could easily fail in steep terrain, he said.
“It is imperative that you keep your terrain choices conservative for the foreseeable future,” Rohrig said. “Keep it mellow people, uncertainty is high, conditions are dangerous and lots of folks are out in the mountains.”
Of the eight deaths in avalanches in the state, all were men above the age of 40 that had spent a lot of time in the backcountry. A report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center last year that studied last season’s avalanches found most people involved with avalanches had significant levels of avalanche experience.
Kristia Check-Hill, an incident commander for Routt County Search and Rescue, said they had three calls in the past three days, but each was able to resolve itself before they needed to put a team in the field. She cautions all side and backcountry users to be extremely aware of their surroundings and have the right equipment with them.
Gilchrist suggested people try to avoid avalanche terrain as much as they can, even if that means setting expectations a little lower. He noted avalanches can be triggered from below without even being on the slope.
“You can still go out there and have fun, there is plenty of terrain, especially around here, but you just have to give extra caution to the avalanche terrain, especially this year,” Gilchrist said.