Spring warmth causes even more danger
Brad Sawtell of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) foresees this spring as being especially vicious. As surface snow melts and percolates through the snow, the density of the snow increases dramatically, as does its weight.
“I have a feeling we’re going to have a very accident-prone spring,” Sawtell said, especially on south and southeast facing aspects. “Maybe it’s time to steer clear of the backcountry until the transition from winter to spring is done.”
A slide that occurs in these conditions is called a wet avalanche, and can cause catastrophic damage as the heavier snow packs a more powerful punch.
Spring temperature variances can also cause instability in the snowpack when the layers of water trickling through the snow freeze into a solid sheet of ice deep. Deep inside the snowpack, it gives a potential slide a surface with little restriction.
“It’s like wrapping a mountain in Saran Wrap,” Sawtell said.
Eventually, the cycle of warm spring days followed by cold nights can strengthen the snowpack, when the layers of ice are connected by a lattice n the snow.
Until then, conditions can continue to deteriorate.
In a recent expedition into the Tenmile Range, Sawtell saw avalanche indicators in a snowpit which showed that the Saran Wrap effect was taking hold of entire mountain sides.
Using a snow saw, Sawtell had to hack his way through inch-thick layers of ice as he created columns of snow for testing stability. Those layers then broke away in the tests, revealing a snowpack that was weak in strength, but high in energy.
At the time, the layers beneath the ice hadn’t rotted away, though they had the potential.
At the very least, CAIC’s daily reports have lately included recommendations that backcountry riders get their turns in early in the morning.
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