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Colorado Department of Transportation shifting toward safer methods of protecting busy highways from avalanches

FRISCO — The Colorado Department of Transportation is quickly shifting the way that they perform avalanche mitigation efforts, hoping to create safer and more efficient alternatives to traditional mitigation missions.

There are about 400 known avalanche paths that potentially could impact highways in Colorado, and CDOT performs regular mitigation missions on about 180 of them. And while the number and frequency of missions varies considerably from year to year based on conditions, CDOT is constantly trying to improve its methods for keeping snow off the road and traffic moving smoothly through mountain corridors.

“There’s a few goals here for the program,” CDOT Winter Operations Manager Jamie Yount said. “Public safety and worker safety are the main categories, but we also want to provide a high level of service to the public. We want to go in there, do the work and get the roads back open.”

During a historic avalanche cycle, like Summit County and much of the state dealt with last winter, mitigation missions are frequent. Yount noted that during the 2018-19 winter, CDOT performed about 1,400 explosive detonations and triggered about 850 avalanches. But the techniques the department uses are beginning to change.

Traditionally, CDOT used military ordnance through a combination of avalaunchers — compressed-gas cannons that fire explosives into the sides of mountains — and helicopter missions. Those methods, which are still common, accounted for about two-thirds of all mitigation missions last year, Yount said. Safety concerns related to the explosives are typically the reason CDOT is unable to provide public notice before beginning mitigation efforts.

But the department is increasingly dedicated to the use of remote avalanche control systems. The systems — branded Gazex and O’bellx — are essentially gas chambers that CDOT installs on slide paths. Once activated, a central chamber fills with a mixture of oxygen and propane, or hydrogen gas, and fires an explosion directed toward the snow to create a controlled slide.

CDOT has been systematically installing the systems around the state for the past couple of years. There are currently 36 pods installed around mountain corridors, including around Eisenhower Tunnel and Berthoud Pass. Earlier this year, five new units were put in place on Monarch Pass and Wolf Creek Pass. The systems are already getting their work in, according to Yount, who noted that over the past five years, the number of projectile explosive missions have gone from about 3,000 annually to about 300.

Not only are the remote systems safer, in that they literally take explosives out of the hands of CDOT workers and help remove the possibility of hikers stumbling upon undetonated ordnance in the spring, they’re also helping to improve the efficiency of mitigation missions.

“One of the big advantages of gas exploders is we can do them at night,” Yount said. “So when we’re doing our road closures, we try to do those in off-peak hours. But when we’re using projectiles, we have to do daylight closures. With remote systems, instead of closing at 7 a.m., doing the mitigation work, the cleanup work and being open by 9, we’re doing the closure at 4 or 5 a.m., and we’re open by 7. The missions go a lot quicker and really help to improve our operational efficiency.”

Guessing at the avalanche cycle

Nobody really knows how often CDOT will be employing its remote avalanche control systems, or its traditional avalauncher or helicopter missions, this year because forecasting avalanche conditions more than a couple of days out can be incredibly difficult.

CDOT relies on a partnership with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center to help determine which areas of the state are at the most risk for slides and when mitigation efforts need to move forward. And while the area has had somewhat of a worrisome start to the season in regard to avalanche conditions, experts say it’s unlikely we’ll see a season as severe as last year.

“I think it’s pretty reasonable to say we’re probably not going to see this year what we saw last year,” Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene said. “If you predict a 300-year avalanche cycle each year, you’re going to be wrong a lot.”

Greene emphasized that even though last winter was historic in regard to avalanches, much of the damage was done during a single week in March. Still, the conditions for the cycle were set early in the season.

Greene said there were three notable periods or events that lead up to the avalanche cycle earlier this year. The first was an even blanket of snow that built up above tree line in October, followed by a relatively dry November and early December, which allowed the snow to turn into what Greene called a “very weak layer of depth hoar” — essentially a weak crystal formation in the snowpack.

Second, the state saw small, but consistent, snowfall throughout January and February, which created a strong layer in the middle of the snowpack. Finally, the state had severe snowstorms “one after another” around March with very high precipitation rates that put a lot of weight on the existing snowpack in a short amount of time.

“It’s kind of a recipe for a big avalanche cycle,” Greene said. “Because when you have a really weak layer on the bottom, when something breaks, it’s going to take the whole snowpack with it. … It just started piling on weight, and when it broke, it broke catastrophically.”

Greene noted that this season started off somewhat similarly, with a weak layer of snow developing in October followed by a relatively dry November. Greene said it’s typically rare to have perfect avalanche conditions all line up together in the same season, but as avalanche forecasting is incredibly difficult more than a few days out, even experts will have to wait and see how conditions develop throughout the rest of the winter.

“We did have pretty good snowfall at the end of October, and then we had a fairly dry November,” Greene said. “That has created a nice, weak layer for us. That wasn’t a problem until around Thanksgiving, and we started to see avalanches on that layer pretty quickly. It gives you an idea of how weak and sensitive that layer is.

“What happens from now on really depends on what the rest of the winter brings. It’s pretty safe to say that we’ll continue to see elevated avalanche hazards with every new storm for the rest of December and maybe into January.”

Up to 10 inches of snow expected on high Summit County peaks during weekend storm

FRISCO — Snowfall over Summit County on Thursday was a bit of a teaser for this weekend, when more accumulation is expected.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Kalina predicted snowfall amounts to be between 5 and 10 inches on higher, west-facing slopes. In the valley, the lower elevations of Summit County will see 1-4 inches of accumulation, according to Kalina.

Kalina said the weekend storm is expected to start at about midnight Saturday, Dec. 7, and will continue until around noon Monday. 

Temperatures also will fall over the course of the three-day storm. Kalina reported that the high temperature Saturday will be 46 degrees, Sunday the high will be 40 degrees, and by Monday it will drop to 30 degrees.

“This storm’s energy is moderate, and the storm’s moisture is low-to-moderate, as well, and neither of these two factors gets me excited for big snow,” OpenSnow meteorologist Joel Gratz wrote in his blog. “However, the duration of the system — 24 to 36 hours — might help to bring reasonable snow totals in the 4-10 inch range.”

Gratz added that the ski areas likely will see fresh snow Sunday with the softest powder Monday morning.

The National Weather Service shows the next potential snow showers to hit the following weekend, beginning Friday, Dec. 13. Gratz predicted that this next storm would bring a moderate amount of snow at best or miss the area entirely at worst. 

82 avalanches were reported in Colorado after Thanksgiving-week storm

More than 80 avalanches have been observed since a major snowstorm pounded much of Colorado last Tuesday, nearly half of them capable of burying someone, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Two were rated large, one near Red Mountain Pass and the other at Wolf Creek Pass, both in southern Colorado. Of the 82 avalanches reported to the CAIC, 40 occurred naturally, 17 were the result of avalanche control work and 20 were caused by skiers, snowmobiles or snowshoers. Most of those were harmless slides, and no one was caught in them. Colorado avalanches killed eight last year but none so far this year.

“What’s happened is we had a lot of early-season snow in October,” said Mike Cooperstein, a forecaster for the CAIC. “That snow turns into weak snow that’s not bonded well to the crystals around it. You end up with this really weak snow on the ground and it keeps on going through this cycle. Eventually, you get what happened (last week), you get a big storm, you put a bunch of weight on top of it, you have a slab on top of a weak layer and you see avalanches. Until these recent storms, we haven’t had that slab, we just had weak crystals sitting on the ground.”

Read the full story at The Denver Post.

I-70 reopens at Vail as heavy snow, strong winds hit High Country

9:15 p.m. I-70 has reopened in both directions at Vail.

7:58 p.m. I-70 westbound has reopened at Vail. The eastbound lanes remain closed.

7:20 p.m. Interstate 70 is closed at Vail because of multiple spun out cars, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

U.S. Highway 285 also is closed east of Fairplay because of low visibility. The highway was the alternate route when I-70 was closed in both directions earlier in the day. That detour led to near standstill traffic and hourlong delays along the route, according to posts in the Hoosier Passers Facebook group.

Original story:

FRISCO — Summit County is under a snow squall warning through 3:30 p.m. Friday as well as a winter weather advisory and high wind warning through 6 p.m. Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

The snow squall warning is alerting residents that wind gusts higher than 40 mph are expected to pass through the area, causing blowing snow and “extremely poor visibility” leading to dangerous and life-threatening travel, according to the Weather Service.

After the snow squall warning expires at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Summit County will continue to be under a winter weather advisory with 4-8 inches of snow expected along with high winds, according to the Weather Service forecast.

Starting at 8 p.m. Friday, sustained winds of 35 to 45 mph with gusts up to 90 mph are expected through Saturday evening.

Motorists are advised to use extreme caution while traveling during the storm.

Friends of Colorado Avalanche Information Center capitalizes on increased public awareness after March avalanche cycle

BRECKENRIDGE — When it comes to fundraising for Colorado’s snow and avalanche safety community, Saturday’s Colorado Avalanche Information Center Benefit Bash at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge is the backcountry skiing equivalent of the Daytona 500: a season kick-off party you don’t want to miss.

In the wake of record-breaking October snowfall and on the heels of a March avalanche cycle for the history books, the Friends of CAIC — a nonprofit organization that financially supports the CAIC — raised $111,000 to break the million-dollar mark for the event’s 12-year run, which was the goal heading into Saturday night.

Friends of CAIC Executive Director Aaron Carlson said the fundraising arm of the avalanche forecasting center has grown each year, topping out at $615,000 last year after the planned fundraising campaign coincided with a prolific avalanche season. Broadcast television reporters drove up and down Tenmile Canyon, spring-loaded for the next slide. Interstate 70 closed for unprecedented periods of time. Carlson got text messages from people asking him if they thought it was safe to drive west to Copper Mountain or Vail.

“I think the CAIC touches a lot of people that don’t even know about it,” Carlson said. “So I think what last March did for us is really open people’s eyes to the fact that there is this program in the state of Colorado. It is a state program largely funded by the state, but there is also this nonprofit arm that helps fundraise to push avalanche safety forward in Colorado. And we did see a big influx in donations last spring but also more once it started snowing this fall. I think a lot of people got really excited about the snow in October.”

The CAIC and its fundraising arm are hopeful October’s snowfall reminds backcountry recreators how fickle our mountain snowpack can be. Carlson said the fundraising goal this year is bumped up to $700,000 — 13.8% more than the group brought in last year.

CAIC Director Ethan Greene said avalanche activity has returned to the state thanks to weak snow on the ground near and above tree line. That’s the snow that fell in the October storm and has been sitting on the ground ever since. Now that there is new snow on top of that, we’re again starting to see human-triggered avalanches without a whole lot of more snow on top of it.

“That problem is not going to be going away. It’s really only going to be getting worse over the next month or so as we start to build the snowpack. We already had this weak layer.”

Greene explained how October snow is not good for those concerned with avalanche conditions. More often than not, it tends to create a problematic avalanche season. That doesn’t always happen, Greene said, but it depends on how everything unfolds. But what folks like Greene would like to see is when it starts snowing, it’s best when it doesn’t stop.

“Whether that will cause us problems for another month and go away or plague us through the whole winter, we just don’t know yet,” Greene said.

Helping to soak important, applicable information out of the uncertainty of our continental snowpack is the core mission of CAIC. Funds raised Saturday night and at subsequent mountain town fundraisers over the next few weeks will go toward funding four seasonal forecasters at the center and the production and technology that goes into the CAIC mobile app. More money means a better forecasting platform on the CAIC website and a wider reach for the Know Before You Go and Know Before You Go To Work avalanche education programs for children and adults.

Ultimately, Carlson said Friends of CAIC has a goal in the next five years to grow another third in terms of sheer financial bankroll, to become a $1 million per year organization. If and when it does, the number of backcountry forecasters would jump to 10 and the nonprofit would further improve its interface between its mobile and web applications.

As the fundraising fight continues, Greene and Carlson said the most important takeaway from last year was the communication with the public. Namely, the widened eyes of people who traditionally wouldn’t have cared about avalanche knowledge was a good thing for the state and its eternal effort to keep people safe.

“I think it’s really important that even if you don’t recreate, if you’re driving through the mountain corridors of Colorado that you consider supporting the Avalanche Center via the Friends of CAIC,” Carlson said.

Snowy Thanksgiving week to make for great skiing but poor I-70 conditions

A passenger truck drives on Interstate 70 near Silverthorne.
Liz Copan / ecopan@summitdaily.com

FRISCO — For those of you dreaming of a white Christmas, Summit County’s about to get plenty of the magical white stuff for the earlier fall holiday coming up this week — Thanksgiving. National Weather Service meteorologist Paul Schlatter reported predictions of two major storms and a week of cold temperatures. 

According to Schlatter, the first snow storm will begin Monday afternoon and will continue until Tuesday, Nov. 26, around noon. The storm is predicted to bring 4–8 inches of snow, with the lower end of the prediction being in towns and the higher end being up at the ski areas. 

While this potentially big dump of snow on the mountains will be great for those already in Summit County who plan to stay, those attempting to drive up for the week — or down from the area into Denver — for the holidays are going to have a bit of a problem on I-70. The storm is going to be larger near the Denver/Boulder area and Schlatter reported that the east side of Interstate 70 may see up to a foot of snow on Monday night into Tuesday.

“I-70 could be a major problem Monday night into Tuesday,” Schlatter said. 

Not surprisingly, it will also be cold. 

“Tuesday, the snow is wrapping up,” Schlatter said. “It’s going to be in the upper teens to low 20s. I don’t see any good warm-ups this week.” 

Schlatter added that temperatures will be in the 30s on Wednesday and Thursday. 

The next storm, which comes in on Friday, Nov. 29, will potentially hit Summit County even harder. While Schlatter said the meteorology team isn’t as confident in how much snow will fall yet, he said that snow will cover the area for most of the day Friday into Saturday night. Schlatter reported that Summit County may see as much as a foot of snow and that temperatures will drop into the 20s.

With the second storm being on both a weekend and following Thanksgiving, this also poses a traffic problem. Margaret Bowes, executive director of the I-70 Mountain Corridor Coalition, advised that travelers visit goi70.com/travel to take a look at traffic volumes.

“Folks can plan around a high volume of traffic time,” Bowes said.

Bowes also recommended checking cotrip.org to find details about the current road conditions. Bowes added that with the weather and the holiday this week, it’s important for travelers to gather good information before getting into their cars.

“Good tire tread and all season or snow tires are very important,” Bowes said. 

Although the weather may come at an inconvenient time for travelers, Bowes pointed out that Thanksgiving isn’t like Memorial Day weekend where everyone is likely traveling at the same time. 

“One positive thing about the Thanksgiving holiday is the traffic volumes tend to be a little more spread out than other holidays,” Bowes said. “There’s a lot of people on the road, but they’re traveling on different times and days so that’s a positive.”

After Saturday, the National Weather Service sees things looking a bit drier with no more storms currently on their radar, according to Schlatter.

Joel Gratz to give keynote talk for Startup Weekend Breck

BRECKENRIDGE — At 5:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, OpenSnow founder Joel Gratz is giving the keynote talk for Startup Weekend Breck, and he plans to discuss more than weather. Startup Weekend Breck is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to pitch and design their new business ideas, so Gratz will share the story of his own startup company, OpenSnow. But it wouldn’t be a Gratz speech without some mention of snow.

“I’ll definitely include some weather,” Gratz said. “That’s going to be a hot topic. It looks like it’s going to be stormy, which is fun. I like to do that anyways because people are always asking.”

Aside from weather, Gratz plans to kick off the business talk by discussing the financial aspects of his company. He said he originally used his and his team’s own savings to fund the business because it was never funded by investors. Now, the business is customer funded.

Gratz also said he created a set of goals he wanted for his new company before he launched it. He will explain to attendees what was on his “rubric.”

The rubric “has to do with not only being a financial success but what makes me happy, what makes our employees happy,” Gratz said. “When we started this, we kind of had free reign to make this our own and make it awesome.”

Gratz said he then plans to have some banter with the audience about what a startup’s options are and how to move forward.

Gratz said he is looking forward to showing a different side of his business. 

“These are kind of fun events, too, because its beyond weather,” he said. “It’s kind of the intersection of two passions. This is a nice way to approach it from a different angle.”

Tickets for the three-day Startup Weekend event are $75 through Dec. 1 and then $99 through Dec. 9 and can be purchased on eventbrite.com. The cost to attend the Gratz keynote is $25.

CDOT reminds drivers of I-70 traction laws

FRISCO — Following Wednesday’s snowfall, a series of winter storms are set to hit the western parts of the state, and the Colorado Department of Transportation is asking motorists to make sure they’re ready for the conditions before hitting the road.

Storms are forecast to linger through Friday and are expected to impact mostly the High Country above 8,500 feet. CDOT already has issued advisories of potential travel impacts around the state, including in the Summit County area, where the department is expecting as much as 10 inches of heavy and blowing snow along the I-70 corridor, particularly near the Eisenhower Tunnel and Vail Pass.

Travelers should be aware of chain and traction law codes before heading out on the roadway. Passenger traction laws, Code 15, require all passenger vehicles to have appropriate all-weather tires with 3/16-inch depth treads. Vehicles must have one of the following: snow tires, tires with a mud/snow designation, chains or an alternative traction device such as an autosock. Four-wheel drive and all wheel drive vehicles must have snow tires or all-weather tires. The traction law is currently active and will remain active on I-70 between Dotsero and Morrison until May 31.

Passenger chain laws, Code 16, require all passenger vehicles to have chains, except for four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive vehicles with all-weather tires and three-sixteenths of an inch tread depth. Commercial chain laws, Code 18, require all commercial vehicles and trucks to have chains.

For more information on weather forecasts and anticipated travel impacts, check out cotrip.org or sign up for CDOT alerts at bit.ly/coalerts.

Update: Interstate 70 reopens on both sides of county

4:46 p.m. All Interstate 70 closures in the area have been lifted, according to CDOT.

3:47 p.m. Eastbound Interstate 70 has reopened at mile marker 195 at Vail Pass.

3:31 p.m.: Colorado Highway 9 has been reopened, according to the Colorado State Patrol.

3:19 p.m.: Eastbound Interstate 70 is closed near Georgetown due to multiple spun out vehicles.

3:14 p.m.: Westbound Interstate 70 has been closed at milepost 215, near the Eisenhower Tunnel, due to a crash west of the tunnel.

Original story:

FRISCO — The snowfall is already causing some issues on roadways around the mountain corridor.

There is a safety closure on Colorado Highway 9 due to spun out vehicles, according to the Summit County 911 Center.

The closure, which began at about 2:20 p.m., includes both the north and southbound lanes between milepost 78 and 81 — from about Blue River south past Hoosier Ridge.

Both eastbound and westbound Interstate 70 is also closed at Vail Pass due to crashes.

Commercial chain laws are in affect on Colorado Highway 91 between Copper Mountain and Leadville as well as on on Loveland Pass.

Three-day storm expected to drop 9+ inches on Summit County ski areas

FRISCO — Snow is back in the forecast after two weeks of mostly dry and unseasonably warm weather in Summit County.

National Weather Service meteorologist Natalie Sullivan said the forecast shows snow Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Sullivan expects it will start snowing in Summit County early Wednesday with the heaviest snowfall forecast for Wednesday afternoon. 

“For Summit County, it looks like the current forecast has totals anywhere from just under 2 inches in the lower elevations to up to about 9 inches or a little bit more for the higher, more mountainous areas,” Sullivan said. 

While there will be snow, high temperatures are expected to remain above freezing in Frisco with the lowest high temperature being 38 degrees on Thursday and Friday. Low temperatures are expected to bottom out Friday night at 13 degrees. 

“Wednesday isn’t too bad, then it gets colder on Thursday and Friday,” Sullivan said. “So Wednesday will be about 10 degrees cooler than (Tuesday), and then Thursday will be about 5 degrees cooler.”

Despite a fairly dry November, National Weather Service hydrologist Treste Huse reported that the Blue River Basin, where Summit County is located, is at 107% of normal snow-water equivalent for November. 

“Due to the dryer conditions of late, we’re kind of going back near normal,” Huse said. “Last year, we actually stayed above normal and then we really shot above normal through March. Right now, we’re about near normal, but it’s very early in the snowpack season.”

Huse reported that the snow-water equivalent is about average compared with the past five years. Statewide, Colorado is at 77% of normal.

After this week’s three-day storm, Open Snow meteorologist Joel Gratz predicts a dry weekend and wrote in his blog that “multiple storms should hit Colorado during the week of Thanksgiving and into early December.”

Courtesy Natural Resources Conservation Service