Summit County avalanche danger high this weekend as another storm rolls through
November 23, 2018
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has issued an avalanche watch for Summit County and Vail in advance of a storm system rolling through the area this weekend. The center forecasts a high danger of avalanches at and above the tree line, as well as a "considerable" risk of avalanches below tree line.
With up to a foot of snow predicted for Summit County overnight, avalanche risk is at its second highest level in the area as winter starts to hit its stride. While early season snow in October brought a lot of cheer to the High Country, it also laid a very unstable foundation on the slopes.
"Early snow can often be a precursor to heightened avalanche danger later in the year," said Ethan Greene, director of the information center. "That's because we have a very shallow snow pack and cold temperatures, often in the fall, that forms a very weak structure in that shallow snow. It's not a big deal when that's all there is, but when you build more layers on top of that, it increases the risk of an avalanche."
Greene said that autumn snow is prone to be thinner, weaker and less stable due to cycles of warmer days and cold nights. When winter snow starts piling on top of that, the sheer mass puts more and more downward force on the unstable pack until the layers collapse into each other, with sheets sloughing off and sliding down the mountain as a wall of snow, burying everything in its path.
Avalanches typically happen during and after snowstorms on steeper slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. Aside from the snow accumulation, this weekend will also see strong winds that blow snow and scour them off exposed slopes, creating more instability. Greene pointed out that avalanches can also happen days, weeks or even months after a storm.
Greene said that avalanches in the short-term should be less dangerous than ones we see as winter really picks up. However, that doesn't mean they're any less risky.
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"Right now, avalanches are not going to be huge, but still big enough to kill people recreating in the backcountry," Greene said. "It doesn't take a big avalanche to get people in trouble."
While there haven't been any avalanche deaths so far this season, there have been five reported avalanche incidents where a human got caught. The only injury reported was at the Arapaho Pass in the Indian Peaks area, where a hiker got caught and carried 150 feet before landing and fracturing his pelvis. Several smaller avalanches have also been observed in Summit County, but there have been no reported injuries.
Greene said that the best way to avoid an avalanche is to check the avalanche forecast before heading out at Colorado.gov/Avalanche, where educational resources are also available to learn more about avalanches and how to mitigate the risks.
Greene also strongly recommends that anyone going out into the backcountry near avalanche-prone zones go out with the proper equipment — an avalanche beacon, probe pole and a shovel — and for every member of a group to be trained in using them.
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