State warns of dangerous avalanche conditions following four fatalities: ‘We need to stop this deadly trend’
Heavy snow on top of a weak base layer brings heightened avalanche danger early in the season
Colorado is experiencing heightened avalanche risk in the backcountry this month after heavy December and January snowfall, with four avalanche fatalities recorded in the past three weekends and nine people caught in slides since the beginning of the season.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has recorded 973 avalanches in the past 30 days, 112 of which were unintentionally triggered by humans. Of the four fatalities, two took place on Rollins Pass on Jan. 7, one near Breckenridge on Dec. 31, and one near Berthoud Pass on Dec. 26.
Ethan Greene, the director of the CAIC, said that avalanche conditions are more dangerous than usual this early on in the season, prompting the center to release a public warning on Jan. 11 for recreators to be extra cautious when venturing into the backcountry.
“We’ve seen more avalanches this year than we do in a typical year, and recently they’ve gotten much bigger,” Greene stated in the warning. “We need everyone headed into the backcountry to plan their trip carefully and make sure they avoid avalanche hazards. We need to stop this deadly trend.”
Colorado is by far the most dangerous state in the country when it comes to avalanches, with 312 fatalities from 1950-2022, nearly doubling the number of fatalities recorded in the second most dangerous state, Alaska.
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Greene explained that the danger stems from having a poor base layer of snow, known as a persistent weak layer, which forms during the first snowfalls of the year and serves as a foundation for the growing snowpack over the course of the season. With its dry weather, sunny skies and warmer temperatures, Colorado often forms persistent weak layers in the early winter, and this season was no different.
“You can sort of think of it like the rings in a tree — every weather event builds a layer and avalanches typically happen from breaks at the interfaces of those layers,” Greene said. “The problem, like this year, is when we have snowfall in late October, early November, and then a couple of weeks of dry weather before we start getting more consistent snow.”
Heavy snowfall on top of a persistent weak layer sets the stage for large-scale avalanches that can be triggered remotely, break above backcountry travelers and bury wide areas. Greene said that the most dangerous avalanche conditions tend to occur at the end of January or the beginning of February, when snow accumulation is heaviest. But with an active winter storm season already delivering snowpack in the hundreds of inches, the risky conditions came a month early, aligning with the holiday season in a way that proved to be deadly.
“The first accident happened on the day after Christmas and then we had accidents the following two weekends as well,” Greene said. “It’s a combination of when these things happen and how bad they are. These slabs of snow are getting thicker, which means that it’s a little bit harder for us to impact those weak layers, but because the weak layer we have right now is a pretty bad one, when you do impact it, it’s going to release a big avalanche.”
Knowledge is protection
Eagle County resident and longtime avalanche educator Mike Duffy was the first on the scene of the recent Rollins Pass avalanche that took the lives of snowmobilers Bruce Dejong, 58, and Darrin Kaderka, 52 on Jan. 7.
Duffy, founder of the snowmobile-specific Avalanche1 training program, was leading a class when he saw the avalanche take place a half-mile away.
”We’re heading out and we saw the avalanche and went over to take a look at it,” Duffy said. “There was a gentleman down in the debris and we knew right away what we had and we went into action.”
The nine students in Duffy’s class immediately went to work, quickly locating one person by his beacon and digging through wet snow for seven hard minutes to extract him while probing the area for the second person, who did not have a beacon. Grand County Search and Rescue was on the scene to perform CPR but was unable to revive the first victim. The second body was recovered the following day.
Duffy echoed Greene’s warning that the current conditions are primed for the most deadly kind of avalanches, and the size and speed of the Rollins Pass avalanche was the tragic end result of these factors.
“These are the biggest and most destructive avalanches. They are very hard to survive, even if you have an airbag or a transceiver,” Duffy said. “You have to have patience in Colorado, and snow doesn’t give very good feedback, so you can be doing everything wrong and not triggering avalanches, but if you hit the thin spot or the weak spot on the slope, it’ll go huge.”
Duffy said he encourages people to seek education and training before embarking in the backcountry and recommends on-snow avalanche training as the best way to understand all of the variables that go into planning a safe route and avoiding high-risk situations.
“In the last five years, most of the people killed in avalanches had never taken an on-snow avalanche class,” Duffy said. “Most of the mistakes are pretty basic and so they can be addressed in a classroom setting, but what really makes things click is getting the on-snow training because we can show how we’re looking at things.”
While interest in avalanche training is often reactive, upticking after an accident like the one this past weekend, proactive knowledge is the surest way to avoid a dangerous situation. Over the next two weekends, members of the Vail and Beaver Creek Ski Patrol are leading free Youth Avalanche Awareness training programs for community members.
The weekend of Jan. 21-22 is for students aged 14-17 and Feb. 4-5 is for ages 18-early 20s. The non-certification classes will run from 9-4 p.m. on both days, introducing basic safety and rescue training, terrain identification, and decision-making skills. Programs are capped at 20 students per weekend. To sign up, scan the barcode in this article or contact email@example.com.
Chrissie Oken, a ski patroller and professional avalanche guide, said that these free courses are part of a broader effort to increase accessibility to avalanche information in the valley.
Another new initiative is a monthly State of the Snowpack event, where representatives from Vail Ski Patrol and the CAIC present on conditions, recent accidents and missions. The next State of the Snowpack will take place at Vail Brewing Company on Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m.
“Unfortunately, as a resident of Eagle County, a Vail Ski Patroller, and a professional rescuer in the summer I have seen the aftermath of accidents too many times,” Oken said. “People with a wide array of experience levels are often caught, injured, or killed, so we are trying to put together a range of outreach programs to include everyone.”
Some private local providers for certification courses include Colorado Mountain College, Apex Mountain School and Paragon Guides.
Those who are not confident in their skills should hire a guide to navigate the safest routes. Duffy noted that it is important to check the guide’s credentials for avalanche experience, as some areas of Colorado only require guides to be trained in CPR and first aid.
The CAIC provides detailed avalanche forecasting and monitoring tools on its website, avalanche.state.co.us, giving backcountry recreators the information they need to determine risk level in specific areas and plan their routes.
Right now, the majority of the Western Slope is under “considerable” avalanche danger, level 3 on a danger scale that goes up to 5. A 2018 study of Colorado avalanches shows that 80% of avalanche fatalities happen during level 2 or level 3 danger when activity in the backcountry is highest.
Danger levels only represent broad categorizations, and more detailed information about routes can be found in written forecasts and field reports, as well as on the CAIC digital application.
Greene said that while it is important that people are aware of the dangers, they are still able to venture into the backcountry with the right planning, tools, and education. Avalanches are most common on slopes above a 30-degree incline, so staying off and underneath steep peaks can avoid accidents.
His three main points of advice are to check the avalanche forecast and plan accordingly, receive professional training and make sure that every person has a rescue transceiver, a probe and a shovel in case of emergency.
“We definitely want to be careful about scaring people out of doing recreation because it’s really not necessary,” Greene said. “It’s really based on your level of experience and risk comfort. We like to say that you can pretty much go anywhere you want in Colorado on these deep covered slopes and recreate — what you can’t do is go to every slope on any day.”