Summit County backcountry avalanche danger remains ‘considerable’ as more snow falls |

Summit County backcountry avalanche danger remains ‘considerable’ as more snow falls

An avalanche documented on the northeast backside face of Bald Mountain in Breckenridge on Thursday afternoon, Jan. 19. Slide danger in the backcountry remains elevated in Summit and Vail as more snow continues to fall.
Stewart Birmingham / Special to the Daily |

Bald Mountain, Uneva Peak, Loveland Pass and North Star Mountain — each has had at least one avalanche reported in Summit County since last Thursday.

The nation has experienced six avalanche-related fatalities so far this ski season, two in Montana, two in Washington state and one each in Wyoming and in the Sierras on the border of California and Nevada. The most recent occurred at Montana’s Stanton Mountain, and near Washington’s Crystal Mountain, both in early January.

That’s slightly behind the average pace of 27 deaths each year for the past decade, particularly with just two so far for the month of January, which usually sees the most each year. February is a close second. Colorado, by far the deadliest state for avalanche fatalities since statistics started being kept in 1950, has yet to have a snow-slide death this ski season, but officials aren’t yet counting their blessings.

“It surprises me,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, “and it makes me really happy. We’re below the pattern we typically see, and I’d say it’s a combination of the good work that avalanche groups out there are doing, and also that people are paying attention and going into the backcountry prepared.”

“New snow and continued strong winds are combining to produce dangerous avalanche conditions. … These avalanches will become more widespread and grow in size this afternoon as the next pulse of heavy snowfall moves into the area.”Brian LazarColorado Avalanche Information Center deputy director

That means every member of a backcountry crew packing an avalanche beacon, probe pole, as well as collapsible shovel. Having at least a minimal amount of training on avalanches is also highly recommended by experts, with the idea that even a small amount of knowledge could save your life. Doing the research before leaving home is also a major factor.

The CAIC posts daily snow and avalanche forecasts for 10 regions in the state, including one for Vail and Summit County. It also provides an area for professionals and members of the public to post detailed reports about observed slides and accidents, which is where the two have teamed to alert other backcountry enthusiasts of where to avoid should their adventurous side spur them into unmanaged zones throughout the county.

Presently there are four regions in the state with high danger warnings — a 4 on a 5-point scale — Aspen, Gunnison and the North and South San Juans. According to the CAIC, five others are a level lower with a “considerable” designation including Summit and Vail. Much of it has to do with the significant storms that have hit the region in the last month.

“New snow and continued strong winds are combining to produce dangerous avalanche conditions,” CAIC deputy director Brian Lazar wrote in his Monday morning forecast of Summit. “These avalanches will become more widespread and grow in size this afternoon as the next pulse of heavy snowfall moves into the area.”

But the natural inclination would seem to suggest that if there’s more snow, there’s more chance for avalanches. That’s not always the case, however, and given Colorado has yet to see a death, and California has technically had just one despite the massive dumpings the state has repeatedly received, there’s not necessarily a direct correlation.

In the case of Colorado, the snowfalls have been unusual this season in that many of them have come in very short periods, and they’re also much warmer — and because of that much wetter — than normal for our dry climate. In turn, these very deep snowpacks settle and stabilize quickly compared to the snow that typically blankets the region, where structural weaknesses can last weeks if not months.

“This year doesn’t compare really well to years past,” said Greene. “It’s been a little closer aligned to a coastal region, where the avalanche danger spikes with a big storm, then drops.”

Still, as the field and accident reports on the organization’s website confirm, that’s not to say the state has wholly avoided slides or precarious incidents. Not two weeks ago, a skier required rescue after being partially buried and suffering several fractures to his leg and a head wound at North Fork Fish Creek near Buffalo Mountain outside of Steamboat Springs. And in two separate December incidents — one in Crested Butte and the other at Rabbit Ears Peak also near Steamboat — snowmobilers were caught and buried in each incident, but avoided injury.

“We’ve had a bunch of close calls, but people were carrying good equipment, were prepared for accidents and performed good rescue procedures,” said Greene. “But January is not over yet, and we’re not taking any of this for granted. I hope nobody dies, but if you look at accident patterns in previous years, we still have a lot of winter left. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

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