Colorado snow totals keep rising, as does backcountry danger level | SummitDaily.com
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Colorado snow totals keep rising, as does backcountry danger level

As snowfall totals continue to climb, so too does the chance for avalanches. So far this winter there have been 15 fatalities from slides, and January was a particularly deadly month with 12 including two in Colorado.
Tripp Fay / Copper Mountain Resort |

Snow continues to fall in Summit County as resort-goers anxiously await what could be one of the biggest storms so far this winter if forecasts hold and hit their peak numbers.

Totals have already reached between 12 and 18 inches in the last few days, with Breckenridge Ski Resort reporting 15 inches in the last 48 hours, Copper Mountain Resort at 14 in that same timeframe and Keystone Ski Resort at 12. Arapahoe Basin saw 13 inches in the last 72 hours, each still expecting — and hoping — for even more of the fluffy stuff, as much as another 12-to-16 inches in the next couple days.

“The biggest pulses of snow have already likely been seen in the Vail and Summit County zone,” said Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). “What’s coming may not be as impressive as the last couple days, but the area could certainty see another foot, no problem. That would make for upwards of 2-and-a-half-to-3 feet in the deepest areas, which is a significant storm event for anywhere in Colorado.”

Current forecasts are calling for between 2-to-4 inches more overnight Monday, between 1 and 3 Tuesday morning, another 1-to-3 inches Tuesday night and possibly even more snow Wednesday.

Of course, with such heavy and sudden snowfalls comes the inherent danger of avalanches, both naturally occurring and human-triggered.

The CAIC, which concentrates its efforts on backcountry areas, issued a special avalanche advisory for the region by 7:45 a.m. on Monday to expire at noon on Tuesday, Feb. 2. When thick, substantial snow, mixed with gusty winds, drops at an expedited rate on top of previously weak snow surfaces, it’s a recipe for a much higher probability of avalanches, of which there were a handful near the Eisenhower tunnel Monday morning.

Up on Boreas Pass in Breckenridge, the blasting operations could be heard starting just before noon on Monday. Shortly thereafter, the sun made its first appearance out from behind persisting overcast during a pause in the day’s continued flurries, though temperatures hung in the teens throughout the afternoon.

Prior to the arrival of any of the white stuff from this storm, the first month of 2016 had already marked the deadliest January for avalanche fatalities since 2008. There were 12 deaths in January alone including two in Colorado and 15 total so far this winter across the United States from 14 slide events.

“January and February typically see the most avalanche fatalities, and March is a close third,” said Lazar. “We’re hoping January doesn’t portend a similar outcome the rest of the winter and make for a terrible year, all said and done.”

Over the last decade, the average number of avalanche deaths per year has been about 29. With two of deadliest months still to come, sitting at 15 is not a good sign for what may lie ahead.

Dating back to 1948, March is the snowiest month in the region at approaching 25 inches on average, though January — not coincidentally the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) National Safety Month — is not far behind at 22, according to the Western Region Climate Center. But in an El Niño winter that’s expected to provide better than median annual dumps, a record-breaking season isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Keystone, for instance, reports a total of 176 inches so far this season after another inch fell Monday afternoon, compared to Breckenridge at 191 inches and Copper at a reported 154. That volume is the most through Feb. 1 for Keystone since the 2010-11 season, noted Russell Carlton, senior communications coordinator at the resort.

Increasing snow totals, sometimes at a rapid pace as the current storm has delivered, however, mean safety remains of utmost concern. It’s why the CAIC offers a few simple pieces of advice to avoid disastrous circumstances.

If thinking of exploring the beyond-bounds backcountry, check updated forecasts and snowpack conditions, which are available daily at http://www.avalanche.state.co.us, before heading out. Second, pack an avalanche transceiver, also known as a beacon, as well as a probe and a shovel. The other recommendations are to always travel with a partner and to enroll in avalanche-instruction course.

“People get training, so they know how to use the forecast and choose terrain appropriate to the conditions, as well as how to use the tools to save one of their companions’ lives should something go wrong,” said Lazar. “Basically, get the forecast, get the gear and get the training.”


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