Backcountry skiers get after it |

Backcountry skiers get after it

summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY ” It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

That’s what diehard skiers are saying this year, milking every last drop of pleasure from a a winter that just won’t seem to end. A storm late last week dropped about eight inches of snow on Arapahoe Basin, and the skiing surface was refreshed yet again with another eight inches reported between May 11-13.

A-Basin skiers and boarders are reporting some of the best skiing of the season high on the East Wall, where winter-like snow lingers in the steepest notches and chutes. The relatively dense spring snow settles more quickly than mid-winter powder, and this is prime-time for the hike-to terrain.

“It was sweet,” said Owen Collins said after snaking a line of GS turns down the North Pole run-out apron. “The drop-in was a little intense … kind of rocky, but this snow is unreal.”

A-Basin, the last ski area open in Colorado, is reporting a 59-inch base, with snow conditions transitioning from powder to spring.

The snow surface can change hour to hour, depending on elevation, aspect and slope angle. It can even change from turn to turn on the same run, with the east-facing side of a gully warming to spring corn early in the morning, while the western aspect remains frozen solid until after lunch.

Local backcountry skiers are talking about big lines on big peaks, with solid top-to-bottom coverage on favorites like Buffalo Mountain and Quandary Peak. The steady stream of storms has extended the harvest of spring corn snow and the potential for backcountry avalanches.

Some skiers or snowboarders may have had a close call May 11 when a big slide strained through a wide chute on Red Mountain, above Silverthorne. Lower Blue resident Rick Warren captured a photo of the Red Mountain slide, and pointed out how tracks are visible above and below the slide, suggesting that the skiers may have triggered the avalanche from above, and then skied down beside the path.

Around the state, highway crews are reporting slow going in clearing high mountain passes like Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park, and Independence Pass, between Leadville and Aspen. That area has the deepest snowpack in a quarter century, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The most recent storms have enlarged cornices along ridge tops, with the risk of cornice collapse increasing as the weather starts to warm up. A rapid spike in temperatures would likely result in a significant cycle of wet snow avalanches.

The snow can be bomber at 10 a.m. but baked into a Slurpee-like glop by 1 p.m. Avy experts and guides suggest an early sunrise start for peak baggers, with the goal of getting out of avalanche terrain by mid-day.

Avalanche accidents this time of year are far from unprecedented. On May 18, 2005, a snowboarder was injured when he was caught in a small slide in a Buffalo Mountain couloir. The route had been heavily traveled in the preceding days, showing the importance of timing for spring backcountry descents.

According to the avalanche center’s May 14 update, highway workers knocked down large cornices along Independence Pass. Dropping bombs from a helicopter, they released truck-sized blocks of snow. Observers later measured the face of the cornice blocks at 50 to 60 feet high. Another wet snow avalanche ran to ground, three to four feet deep on an east aspect, above treeline ” something to think about for the weekend warm-up.

Wet loose snow slides recently ran on the old melt-freeze crust, with other recent avalanche activity following last weekend’s storm cycle ” all good indicators of future slide potential, said forecasters with the avalanche information center.

In the general snowpack discussion, forecasters said they would look for similar activity as they saw last weekend, with a chance of easily triggered shallow slabs on slopes 35 degrees or steeper.

By Sunday wet slabs could be a threat. Keep a close eye on temperatures, the forecasters concluded.

Go to for the latest snow and weather discussion.

Link to CAIC report on 2005 Buffalo Mountain slide:


Check out for a trip report from Buffalo Mountain, hand-illustrated by a Breck artist.

Go to for weather and snow updates posted Wednesday, Friday and Sunday through the end of May.

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