Threat of wet snow avalanches increases
SUMMIT COUNTY – The wave of warm weather sweeping the High Country this week has upped the avalanche danger considerably, with the greatest danger of wet slab activity on the same steep north-facing slopes that still offer decent ski conditions.”We may be close to a wet slab cycle, so keep those eyeballs pealed,” said forecaster Scott Toepfer, explaining that an early morning start is the key to safe backcontry travel right now. While the avalanche danger is low in the morning, the warm weather will quickly melt the crust in the course of the day, as evidenced by numerous natural releases around Summit County.Most seriously, a slide Saturday on Torreys Peak injured a climber in the Dead Dog Couloir, a popular climbing and skiing route of the fourteener’s east face. The slide was only 30 to 50 feet wide but ran 800 to 1,000 vertical feet, Toepfer said. The climber was airlifted to Denver with multiple injuries.Another wet snow point release avalanche Sunday near the Eisenhower Tunnel at about 11,200 feet ended up propogating into a sizable slab, breaking down about three feet deep.The danger of wet snow slides this time of year shouldn’t be surprising. Last year on May 18, a backcountry snowboarder was badly injured in a slide he triggered on Buffalo Mountain during a similar weather pattern. And just two days later, a skier died in a massive wet snow slide inbounds at Arapahoe Basin as the snowpack on Palivacinni gave way in the spring meltdown.The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued a special May 16 hotline update, predicting considerable avalanche danger in the area through the rest of the week. Natural and triggered releases are possible to probable later in the day with persistent warm temperatures.There is no hard and fast rule as to what time an avalanche might run, but with overnight temperatures barely reaching freezing even at the highest elevations, good corn snow can change to slide-prone slush in a surprisingly short time.Guides and avy pros recommend starting up a high peak with the dawn and getting down off the steep routes before the top layer of snow softens to mush. If you’re postholing in slush on the way up, or you can squeeze easily squeeze water out of a hand-held snowball, chances are there is a significant risk of slides, the avalanche center’s forecasters warned during another recent hotline update.A number of wet snow slides have also been running under cornices on east through south aspects, the CAIC reported. Large chunks of cornice have given way in the Vail Pass area in recent days, a sure sign that the overhaning ledges of snow should be avoided by backcountry travelers.Call the avalanche hotline locally at (970) 668-0600 for updated forecasts Thursday, Saturday and Sunday through the end of May.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.On the webPictures from last year’s Buffalo Mountain avalanche are online at http://geosurvey.state.co.us/avalanche/Default.aspx?tabid=381 and http://geosurvey.state.co.us/avalanche/Default.aspx?tabid=380.
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