Backcountry avalanche danger rated considerable in Summit and Vail zones |

Backcountry avalanche danger rated considerable in Summit and Vail zones

A photo of the avalanche slide path that killed a skier west of Crested Butte last weekend.
Photo from Colorado Avalanche Information Center

The avalanche danger was rated considerable near and above treeline in the Summit and Vail zones on Friday, Dec. 25, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Danger was expected to decrease to moderate on Saturday, Dec. 26.

After some major wind storms moved through the area earlier this week, “steep wind-drifted slopes are the most dangerous,” the report stated.

Backcountry recreationists also were warned to “steer clear of slopes steeper than around 30 degrees facing north through east to southeast where thicker wind-drifted slabs have formed.”

Officials are urging backcountry users to be extra careful this winter after three people were killed in avalanches in southern Colorado last weekend.

The three fatalities already represent half of the six recorded avalanche deaths during the entire 2019-20 season.

“We’re seeing really sensitive avalanche conditions,” Colorado Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene said Monday, Dec. 28. “Avalanches that are not that big — they’re getting bigger — but they’re really easy to trigger, and I think that’s tripping up a lot of people. It’s very concerning, and it is indicative of an above average year of people getting killed in avalanches. It’s something that I’m very worried about, that we’re all very worried about. We’re all doing our best to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Over the past decade, Colorado has averaged 5.9 avalanche fatalities a year, according to data collected by the Avalanche Information Center. But Greene said this year already has been troublesome. From Friday, Dec. 18, to Monday, Dec. 21, there were at least 195 avalanches reported, including 68 that were triggered by humans, according to Greene. As of Monday, nine people already had been caught in slides, including the three individuals who were killed.

Green said the cause is likely a “once in a decade” weak base layer of snow caused by early snowfall in October followed by a dry November.

Following unseasonable high temperatures in the low 40s Friday and Saturday, Summit County has a chance of snow beginning Saturday night through Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service office in Boulder.

The multiday storm is expected to drop 6-15 inches at Summit ski areas, according to Joel Gratz, founding meteorologist at Open Snow, noting that cold temperatures and lack of moisture could mean storm totals on the lower side.

And more snow should be on the way early in the new year.

“The storm train will keep on rolling into early 2021 which is what we were expecting and is very good news,” Gratz wrote in his Colorado daily snow blog.

Those heading into the backcountry in search of snow should always be sure to check in on the Avalanche Information Center’s backcountry avalanche forecast, which rates the danger on a scale from “low” to “extreme,” along with providing more detailed insights about specific aspects, elevations, weather and more.

Backcountry users also should take the time to enroll in an avalanche or backcountry safety course before venturing out into the area’s wilds, and should make sure they’re properly equipped and trained in the use of necessary gear like a shovel, probe and avalanche transceiver.

Summit County Rescue Group spokesperson Charles Pitman recommended that backcountry users also pick up a personal satellite tracker, which can send precise coordinates to emergency responders in the event of an avalanche or serious injury.

Those who choose to head into the backcountry should let someone know where they are going and pack extra food, water and emergency supplies in case they’re injured and have to wait an extended period of time for help.

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