Backcountry season brings bulky snowpack
EAGLE COUNTY Some backcountry specialists say the snowpack this season is the best theyve seen in a decade. Some say its the best in a quarter century. But now that a booming backcountry season is in full swing, skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and snowshoers should be aware of elements in the snowpack that could complicate their assessment of whats safe.
Were really set up to see one of the more stable backcountry snowpacks weve seen in the northern mountains in the last 10 years, said Scott Toepfer of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. People would be skiing bold lines in January and February that you usually wouldnt see. Then that dust layer came in and put a damper on it.The northern Rocky Mountains, which include the Gore Range, Flattops, Rabbit Ears, Ten Mile, the Park Range and the Front Range, are unaccustomed to the dust layer phenomenon to which Toepfer is referring, which blew in and settled in mid-February.We had a strong jet stream sweep through the southwest, it swept up a lot of dust. It has had a lot of detrimental effects on the snowpack, Toepfer said. Dust to danger?Toepfer said dust layers cause the snow to melt faster, a phenomenon he observed after the eruption of Washingtons Mount St. Helens in 1980.I patrolled at A-Basin when Mt. St. Helens blew, Toepfer said. It was amazing. It covered A-Basin. It destroyed the ski season. As soon as the sun came out, the snowpack was gone.Dust absorbs the sun quickly, and the stability of the layers above and below it are thus weakened. This presence of weak layers, however, is something found to some extent at this time every season because of the freeze-thaw cycles, according to Tim Cochrane of Vail Mountain Rescue.That happens just about every year, any time we get a heavy start like we had this year, Cochrane said. Its somewhat of an anomaly. I dont think its increased the (avalanche) danger any more than the normal freeze-thaw cycle. Its the refreezing and piling up of the new snow that triggers slab releases. It will break off if theres dust in there or not.According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, February is typically the most avalanche-prone month with March a close second and January third. Cochrane said the snowpack this time of year, when new, wet snow falls on top of older snow that has thawed and then froze again, is the most likely recipe for avalanche activity. And according to researchers, 80 percent of all avalanches occur during or shortly after big snowstorms.The conditions may be more prone in March, Cochrane said. But this is when people start going into the backcountry a lot. This is when the snow is settled, and you can check it pretty easily.Digging a pitCochrane advises that every backcountry user dig a snow pit on steep terrain (30 degrees or steeper) in order to observe the layers in the snowpack and to determine which are weak.You can do a sheer test with the end of your ski or shovel, Cochrane said. You can dig a pit on a hillside, slice in behind the pit, pull forward and see if you create a mini slab. You can see right where it breaks off.The dust layer, whether or not it renders the snowpack more unstable, is visible among the layers in a snow pit, and, depending on how much new snow falls, could call for special attention.The dust layer doesnt throw the rule book out the window, but we look at it as an unusual event, Toepfer said. Even with that dust layer there, some of the lines Ive been skiing recently are more than I would be doing in the last eight years. Im digging down, isolating some columns and beating on them and seeing how they behave. Its still more stable than its been in a long time.Get ready for long backcountry seasonWhile many local outdoor enthusiasts are already hungrily anticipating the whitewater season, the phenomenal snowpack is expected to allow the backcountry season to last into the summer.People are already using words like epic to describe their backcountry turns, Cochrane said. Now theyre looking at the snowpack lasting into June. It opens a whole new set of adventures for riders to get into the backcountry. May and June will be some of the best backcountry months, and well probably still have a bunch of snow fields hanging around in July.That said, while temperatures are rising and it may be starting to feel like spring in the valley, in the alpine backcountry, its still winter.Avalanche people say spring is the best time for backcountry, but its not spring yet around here, Toepfer said. Youre having a coffee at the local coffee house out on the deck and its nice and balmy. But when you throw on your skins and hike up a peak, youre dealing with a lot of different animals. At 13,000 feet, its winter into June.Sports Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext.14632, or email@example.com.Vail Colorado
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