Local skiers, avalanche and rescue officials warn of lurking avalanche danger
Though danger is ’moderate’ recent winds complicate matters
On Jan. 8, Braden Litke of Fairplay posted to the popular Colorado Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Facebook page a list of “fun things to do other than die in avalanches while the snowpack is rotten.”
The list consisted of a dozen bullet points, and included “surf some lower angle trees as fast as you can,” “build a booter and send a backflip at sunset for your profile picture,” “ski extreme terrain in crappy conditions inbounds at resorts to improve your ability” and several other options.
Ultimately the point was clear from Litke, a snowboarder who is as eager for powder as anyone amid the novel coronavirus pandemic: backcountry conditions may not be worth the risks they pose.
“This year has kind of worn us all down, especially when it comes to patience. Everybody wants to get after it,” Litke said. “But with restrictions at the resorts and snowpack being weaker, patience is kind of the key this season.”
Summit locals and visiting skiers and snowboarders continue to have their patience tested after a week where not only did snowfall not help the backcountry danger, but high winds complicated matters further. That included a natural avalanche cycle caused by gusts on Thursday. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center described the situation as one that could be “a bit of a good news and bad news,” on social media.
The information center stated the good news was that the winds stripped the snow down to the ground on a lot of west-facing slopes, especially above timberline, in turn removing some of the old weak snow. Less weak snow means avalanches in fewer places.
But the bad news is lots of wind also means there are new wind drifts sitting on very weak snow. On Friday, Colorado Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene said with the totality of the snowpack being so weak, slides can break all the way down to the ground. On Saturday, the avalanche danger was rated as moderate — a 2 on the 1-5 scale — in the Vail and Summit County area. Greene said 40% of avalanche accidents occur during moderate conditions.
While that level may not seem dangerous, Greene said right now moderate danger “could mean a lot of different things.” Litke concurred, adding that not all moderate conditions are the same.
“It’s a scary moderate,“ Litke said.
“Right now it’s pretty easy to trigger avalanches in specific locations, locations mostly near and above tree line, and any slope that faces north around to east, northeast, those steep slopes are the most dangerous,” Greene said.
Summit County Search and Rescue Group spokesman Charles Pitman said the group doesn’t receive most of their bad avalanche calls when conditions are rated with a higher danger on the avalanche forecast. In those situations, most people are truly scared of being in the backcountry, Pitman said. But when the danger is lower, Pitman said some people let their guard down.
“Unless you’re digging an avalanche pit or at least making some assessment of snow conditions exactly where you are, you could be at risk,” he said.
Pitman said skiers and riders “need to understand the weak layer is not going away and will be a problem all winter long.
• Surf some lower angle trees as fast as you can
• Build a booter and send a backflip at sunset for your profile picture
• Skin up a resort for as long as you can and see how much vert you can get in one day
• Ski extreme terrain in crappy conditions inbounds at resorts to improve your ability
• Use something new, like a powsurfer, that you don’t need high angles for high fun
• Do a hut trip
• Being wary of avalanche terrain, do some exploring. Find a new zone, find that pillow field you’ve always dreamed of, find a cliff to drop when conditions allow.
• Take your dog or your cat or your child or your lizard to something short and mellow and put the focus on them. Take a video. Make a memory.
• If you’re a pro or trying to be a pro or trying to expand your audience for your social media profiles, focus on some b-roll. Everybody likes a little b-roll and you don’t want to film it on a nice stable day when you can be sending something gnar.
• Go to the terrain park and get better
• Build a terrain park and get better
• Get a group of friends and have a socially-distant slalom/snake build day through the woods. Hold a race.
“And the more snow that falls on top of it, the more problematic that’s going to be,” Pitman said. “Just because conditions look nice on top, look fairly firm, that doesn’t mean you’re not stressing that layer underneath.”
Pitman pointed to recent incident that spoke to that reality. It took place on Quandary Peak, where a man found himself hiking up a 40-degree chute, sinking up to his hips every step.
“He’s an extremely lucky person. At one point he was telling one of the rescuers, it felt fairly ’firm’ under his boot once he slid down. But that’s probably because he’s on top of a hard slab, and if that slab rips, on top of the weak layer, he’s taking a ride — a ride he probably won’t survive,” Pittman said.
A couple of others got lucky in recent days after triggering a slide in an area called “No Name,” accessed from the top of Loveland Pass. Between hitchhike laps, one of the men triggered a slide big enough to injure or kill them. Pitman said the man caught in the slide was able to survive thanks to an airbag helping him stay atop the surging snow.
Greene noted that slide was also a place where wind had drifted snow on top of a weak snow layer near timberline.
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