Avalanche conditions considerable in Summit County
Ryan Summerlin December 11, 2012
With low snowpack levels throughout the county, even small avalanches can be fatal, according to experts.
Since the last storm in the county saw accumulation of around a foot in most areas, avalanche forecasters have set the danger at Level 3: Considerable, meaning triggered avalanches above tree line are likely.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center recently performed avalanche mitigation work, triggering six small slides in the Seven Sisters area near Loveland Pass; but other avalanche incidents – skier triggered – have been popping up, prompting skiers and riders to be weary of areas above tree line.
Considerable danger means that man-triggered avalanches are likely and big avalanches are likely in some areas, said Brian Lazar, deputy director for CAIC.
The low snowpack levels have contributed to the considerable danger, making small slides more common because of low-lying sugary snow that slides easily.
Lazar said because of low snowpack levels and the inconsistency of the base layer, small slides can be triggered easily.
“We have a very touchy snowpack and we’re continuing to receive reports of human-triggered avalanches,” Lazar said.
Even though the snow accumulated from the latest storm will likely only be prone to small slides, such avalanches can be fatal, Lazar said.
“Even in small slides, there are terrain features that allow snow to pile up deeply quickly,” Lazar said. “If you combine even a small slide with a gully feature, it could pile up enough snow to bury someone.”
Small slides can be especially dangerous because of the numerous rocks and tree limbs near the surface of the snow.
“In a small slide, the likelihood of injury or a fatality can be pretty surprising – even a small avalanche can drag someone across the surface of the ground through rocks and whatever debris may be covered up by the light snowfall,” Lazar said.
Last year, CAIC received a report of a fatality from an avalanche in backcountry terrain adjacent to Snowmass Mountain. The accident involved a small slide, only 10-15 feet across and only 2 feet deep that ran 25 feet and engulfed a skier.
“It was a pinched-out gully – even a small avalanche, something that size could bury you more than a couple of feet,” Lazar said.
Avoiding an incident like that requires careful terrain evaluation and preparation.
Tim Brown, an avalanche forecaster for CAIC, said snow in the forecast over the next week could increase the avalanche danger.
“We’re looking at good potential for snow producing avalanches even with a very small load of new snow – we’re concerned that as we get more snow the avalanche danger may increase,” Brown said. “Right now the ease of triggering an avalanche because of the unsupportive snowpack is imminent, we may start to see larger avalanches triggered more easily.”
Avoiding an avalanche comes down to being prepared and evaluating terrain and weather conditions. Brown urges all backcountry recreators to take with them an avalanche rescue beacon, a shovel and a probe.
“More importantly they should take their brains – the best way to avoid a dangerous situation is knowing what the terrain is like and choosing safe routes,” Brown said.