While recent storms have been welcome news for area ski resorts, the snow and high winds overnight are expected to increase the avalanche risk in Summit County. As of Saturday afternoon the Colorado Avalanche Information Center listed avalanche danger as “considerable” — level three on the center’s five-point scale — near and above tree-line terrain.
“We’ve seen some of the largest avalanches so far this season,” CAIC deputy director Brian Lazar said regarding recent reports of both human-triggered and natural avalanches, “certainly big enough to kill people.”
Human-triggered avalanches have already led to one fatality this season. George Dirth, 28, of Fraser, was killed Dec. 31 when he triggered an avalanche on Park View Mountain, northwest of Granby near Willow Creek Pass. Members of his party were quick to respond but unable to resuscitate him. Edwin LaMair, 22, was fortunate to survive a slide he triggered in the East Vail Chutes, Dec. 22, while skiing with his brother and a friend. He injured his knee in the slide but managed to keep his head above the surface when the avalanche came to a stop.
The parties in both incidents were reportedly carrying appropriate safety equipment and were described as experienced backcountry skiers. In an interview with the Vail Daily, LaMair said he considered himself lucky to be alive. His brother witnessed the avalanche and was first on scene to dig him out when the slide stopped. LaMair’s brother’s GoPro camera was rolling at the time of the rescue and the video was posted to YouTube.
The avalanche risk is expected to increase with continuing snowfall.
“Right now we’re in an elevated period of danger,” Lazar said. “Human-triggered and natural avalanches are likely. They’ll be easy to trigger over the next few days.”
With high winds in the forecast overnight, Lazar said that wind loading will make some areas particularly susceptible to slides.
“If we get substantial winds, it can deposit layers that are three to five times the storm total,” he said.
Combined with a number of existing weak layers of snow, the extra weight on a wind-loaded slope can dramatically increase the avalanche risk and cause larger slides.
“Any avalanche we see in this recent storm has the potential to step down into deeper layers,” Lazar said, meaning slopes that might have been relatively stable could now slide because of the added pressure on weak layers deeper in the snowpack.
Lazar recommended that anyone traveling into the backcountry exercise caution, saying that hikers and snowshoers may be just as vulnerable to an avalanche as skiers or snowmobilers.
“It has less to do with your mode of travel and more to do with where you are traveling,” he said.
Slopes between 30 and 45 degrees are most susceptible to slides.
The CAIC recommends that anyone considering traveling in the backcountry take an avalanche safety course and always carry the appropriate equipment.
Forecasts and safety information are available at avalanche.state.co.us.