Sunday avalanche deaths indicate weak snowpack
Ryan Summerlin January 23, 2012
Sought-after snow finally arrived in Colorado, but with it came an extremely unstable snowpack that has resulted in several in-bounds and sidecountry avalanches – some with fatalities.
Snow surface activity claimed at least two lives Sunday, with a possible third yet to be reported. Rescuers are still at work, searching for one missing snowmobiler on the west side of Buffalo Pass, near Walden, Colo. Two brothers in their 20s were reportedly caught in an avalanche Saturday night. One brother was found by his father in a snow cave Monday evening, shortly before teams suspended their search due to fading sunlight for the second night. He was alive. The condition of the man still missing remains unknown.
Two confirmed avalanche fatalities were in-bounds at ski resorts: 13-year-old Taft Conlin of Eagle on Vail’s Prima Cornice, which was closed at the time; and 28-year-old Christopher Norris of Evergreen in the oft-skied but unlabeled trees between Trestle and Roundhouse at Winter Park.
All the activity indicates what the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) has been proclaiming all weekend: Be aware out there.
CAIC forecaster Brian Lazar said that, though the near-statewide avalanche warning has been lifted and avalanche danger lowered, “we are in a period of very dangerous avalanche conditions.”
“Any slope that doesn’t slide by itself naturally is just waiting for a human trigger,” Lazar said. “It will be very easy to trigger a slide on any slope over 30 degrees.”
He clarified that avalanche danger was lowered because “the natural avalanche cycle has largely run its course.” Human triggers are still extremely likely.
Though it’s uncommon to see in-bounds avalanche activity most years, this year’s snowpack is keeping ski patrollers busy. As Lazar said, closed trails are closed for a reason. Those skiing the roped-off terrain risk more this year than just getting a pass pulled.
“They’re risking getting caught and killed in avalanches,” Lazar said. “Conditions within ski areas or adjacent to ski areas … are very touchy and sensitive and not like most years.”
Lazar cautioned to have respect for even the smallest of slides, particularly when they occur in “seemingly benign slope features” such as gullies, rocky terrain traps, trees, cliffs or ravines.
“Even small avalanches can be fatal,” he said.
The two in-bounds accidents, as well as the fatality in Snowmass’ sidecountry, fell into the small avalanche category in tight terrain (the one near Snowmass was 15 feet wide and covered 40 vertical feet).
“In-bounds accidents do happen, but they are generally fairly rare,” he added. “Ski patrol and snow safety teams do a phenomenal job of reducing avalanche risk to near-zero on open terrain.”
The bottom line is this year, the snowpack is weak. Extremely weak. And now, it has a “fairly good load on top of it,” Lazar said.