Heavy snowfall and gusting winds this week have presented very dangerous avalanche conditions for the higher elevations in Colorado.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has issued an avalanche watch from Thursday morning until Monday for Vail, Summit County and other mountainous regions across Colorado. Avalanche danger near and above tree line will be high through the weekend. The center advises people to avoid traveling on or under avalanche terrain throughout this time.
“Any avalanche that you trigger or that occurs naturally will be large and destructive,” the center’s website warns.
In the past decade, 113 people have died in Colorado from avalanches, according to reports from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The center has documented two avalanche deaths across the state since the start of the year.
To warn people about avalanche dangers, the center collects reports from the public about incidents that occur, divided into regions.
In 2019, Vail and Summit County have had 76 reports of avalanche sightings so far.
Avalanches vary based on the snow and weather conditions. There are nine types of avalanches in all. After this week’s heavy snow storms, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center lists storm slab avalanches as the likeliest form to occur.
They happen when a layer of new, unstable snow — a slab — slides over the old snow surface. Such slabs can be difficult to identify because the surface of the snow is often soft and powder-packed.
Storm slab avalanches can occur naturally and without warning because the base snow layer can adapt to a certain amount of additional weight from new snow.
But a sudden increase in that weight, such as the dense snowfall from this week’s storms, can cause instabilities and massive slides.
Avalanche education and reporting helps keep you safe
When reporting avalanches, any information is better than none at all. People should at least describe the elevation at which the incident occurred and offer a general size of the avalanche. Including pictures in a report can be especially helpful in filling any gaps in the observation.
Daniel Edmiston teaches avalanche safety classes through Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs. He offers four basic, Level I courses and one Level 2 course each year. He shows people how to recognize and avoid avalanche dangers, as well as what to do if one occurs.
When it comes to the backcountry, he said that being educated could mean the difference between life and death.
“Ninety percent of people caught in avalanches are caught because they triggered them or someone in their party did,” Edmiston said. “It can be a preventable circumstance.”