Avalanche danger high | SummitDaily.com

Avalanche danger high

SUMMIT COUNTY – Avalanche forecasters issued an avalanche warning Sunday for the northern mountains after a storm brought up to a foot of snow to the High Country this weekend.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has increased the rating from considerable, where it has stood for many weeks, to high. Such a rating means that natural and human-triggered avalanche activity is likely.

“People need to be aware they really need to mind their P’s and Q’s in the backcountry,” said Scott Toepfer, avalanche forecaster for the Summit County Avalanche Center in Breckenridge. “You can still do what you’re doing, but you’d better know what you’re doing and where you’re doing it.”

The snow is unstable because the warm, windy days in January hardened the deepest layer. The next layer is granular and unstable, and the new snow in the top layer is heavy.

“Above treeline, the wind is influencing a lot of it,” Toepfer said. “It’s got smaller, thinner, weak layers that the new snow plus wind-deposited snow is overstressing.”

Weather forecasters are calling for cold conditions and more snow today and Tuesday.

“We’re concerned that (conditions) have reached the point where the stress exceeds the strength,” Toepfer said. “That’s a looming issue. We’ll see that in the next couple days. We’re not going to be out of the woods this week. It’s going to continue to load.”

Toepfer said although bumping up the danger factor means conditions are less stable in the backcountry, it’s somewhat of a relief to see change.

“Sometimes you feel like Chicken Little: “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!'” he said of the “considerable” rating that’s been in place for weeks. “It’s been a spooky winter. Now, something tangible is happening. And yeah, it’s dangerous, but if this storm continues for some time, we will eventually see improved avalanche conditions.”

Two escape death in Eagle County slide

EAGLE COUNTY – Two skiers narrowly escaped death after they were swept away in an avalanche in Stone Creek southeast of Beaver Creek Resort Sunday afternoon. One was buried in about four feet of snow.

“I can’t tell you how lucky he is,” said Scott Toepfer, avalanche forecaster with the Summit County Avalanche Information Center in Breckenridge. “He had no rescue gear, he went over a 20-foot cliff, he was buried in four feet of snow, and just the tip of his ski was showing.”

The man with whom he was skiing grabbed a tree to avoid being swept away and was able to dig his friend out. The man who was buried wasn’t breathing, Toepfer said, but the friend was able to clear the snow from his mouth and resuscitate him.

“New snow fell onto a very weak, sugary base,” Toepfer said. “You add the weight of two skiers making turns on a steep slope, and that triggered the weakness to fail. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

The avalanche was 100 feet wide, 200 feet long and 3 feet deep. Ski patrollers from Beaver Creek took the man to Vail Valley Medical Center where he was treated and released.

“If his ski tip had been another six inches down, we’d probably be at fatality No. 2 for the season,” Toepfer said. A Front Range man died last week after he was caught in a slide in Dry Gulch east of the Eisenhower Tunnel.

Toepfer said the two men should have been more prepared before venturing into the backcountry after a heavy snowfall.

“They may have thought of themselves as experienced, but being in a place like that without the proper gear leads you to think they were not experienced,” he said. “The extent of their mountaineering knowledge probably ended at their skiing skills.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.

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