CAIC cautioning backcountry avalanche risk with recent storms
With area resorts reporting between 30 and 40 inches of new snow from this recent series of storms, Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) officials are urging eager backcountry users to exercise caution. While not a full warning, the CAIC has issued an avalanche advisory for much of the state with specific emphasis on northwest, north and northeastern facing slopes. Those particular slopes have held snow from early season snowfalls in October, creating an especially weak base layer.
“I don’t think we’ll get to warning criteria, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous,” CAIC deputy director Brian Lazar said Saturday. “We want people to be aware that it’s touchy out there.”
With substantial snow and high winds in a short period of time, above tree line slopes are seeing significant wind loading, creating the potential for up to 2-foot thick slab avalanches — especially on eastern facing slopes because of west-to-east winds. The lack of a substantial base in the snowpack is also a concern.
“Right now, even a small slide would be a pretty nasty ride because you’re going to get dragged along the ground,” Lazar further explained.
Below tree line, Lazar cautioned, hidden or barely covered debris is an additional issue. Downed trees or barely covered rocks are among obstacles that could be dangerous to an unsuspecting skier or snowboarder.
As for the snowpack as a whole, Lazar said, “This is our first real test of weak layers and they’re not inspiring a lot of confidence,” speaking specifically in regard to those northern aspects and wind-loaded terrain.
The CAIC is suggesting approaching any terrain with caution and sticking to slopes below 30 degrees for the time being.
For the long term, this recent storm is, however, promising for the snowpack.
In years when snow comes late and the weather stays cold, it tends to create a more stable snowpack in the long run. In each of the previous two seasons, early snowfall followed by longer warm periods created an unstable base that was susceptible to deep-slab avalanches late into the season. The late arriving snow this season may have the potential to mitigate some of that danger later in the winter and spring.
After a slow start to the season Colorado appears to be catching up with regard to the average snowpack. OpenSnow.com’s Joel Gratz reported Saturday that the snowpack will likely reach between 60-85 percent of its average across the state after this weekend’s storms.
“It’s a really good start,” Lazar said. “There’s a lot of new snow; we’re all psyched to see it.”
And with a few dry but cold days in the forecast this week, the snowpack may also stabilize substantially to create a more solid base. “We just need a few more storms,” Lazar added. “I don’t think this by itself is going to do it.”
APT FOR THE BACKCOUNTRY
As part of the CAIC’s expanded efforts in backcountry avalanche forecasting and awareness, the group will release their own mobile phone app later this season.
“I think it’s great,” Lazar said. “It will be much easier to view on your phone” compared to the existing website.
The new app is designed to make avalanche forecasts more accessible on-the-go and will also make submitting field observations easier. The result should create an even more extensive database for forecasting.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.