Warm weather stokes wet avalanche caution: An inside look at how ski patrol manages spring operations in Summit County
Over the last two weeks, the weather in Summit County has finally started to feel like spring. With numerous clear sunny days — with temperatures in the high 40s and low 50s — snow has started to melt from the county’s beloved trails and paths.
Although spring skiing in Summit County tends to bring fantastic terrain conditions with balmier temperatures, the mountains still pose a risk of avalanches and injuries. This was demonstrated on Wednesday last week when Vail Mountain was forced to close its Back Bowls because of a wet slide that was spurred by the warm temperatures.
Although Breckenridge Ski Resort has not had a significant wet slide avalanche of its own this spring season, ski patrol director Hunter Mortensen and the rest of the Breckenridge Ski Resort ski patrol team have been hard at work opening and closing terrain in order to keep the public safe while enjoying the spring weather on the mountain.
When faced with warm, snow-melting days, Mortensen says he and his team do not try to preserve the snowpack at Breckenridge Ski Resort. Rather, they put in an effort to manage the snowpack in a way that prevents spring avalanches.
“For us, we are not worried about preserving the snowpack,” Mortensen said. “It is going to do its thing. It is more just making sure that we are managing the snowpack like we do all year round — for avalanche hazards.”
In other words, Mortensen says that the Breckenridge ski patrol team does not do anything different in the spring in terms of managing terrain and mitigating avalanche risks. Mortensen says that a lot of the major work for great spring skiing terrain actually is put in place in the early parts of the season in November and December.
“For skiing now, all the work actually goes in November and December with our snowmaking,” Mortensen said. “Really making sure we blow enough man-made snow in those areas to get us off the mountain this time of year because the upper mountain is going to be in great shape. It is pretty cool that we have that plan in place and a team that can do that.”
Much like how the Breckenridge ski patrol team will close terrain based on snow coverage, weather and adverse conditions in the middle of the winter, ski patrollers during the spring season will also look to close terrain based on the risk for wet slides.
In the spring Breckenridge ski patrollers often do avalanche mitigation work in the early morning hours of their work days and then repeat the process in the mid-afternoon hours in order to address hot spots that may turn into potential wet slides.
“This time of year, we really have two times of avalanche snow safety work that we have to do,” Mortensen said. “We have our normal morning routine, which assess anything that happened overnight, seeing if there is new snow. Then we have the hazard of spring, which is the warming temperatures becoming a wet avalanche problem.”
The hard part about understanding in-bounds wet avalanches, or even in the backcountry, is that there are no real indicators or ways to mitigate the potential for a wet slide, Mortensen said. As a result, ski resorts like Breckenridge or Vail Mountain are often forced to shut down terrain until temperatures cool or the specific area stabilizes.
“That is what a lot of people will see when they are coming up to Breck,” Mortensen said. “We will try to get everything open as soon as we can in the morning and then around noon we really start looking at snow temperature and snowpack temperature. If we start getting nervous based on that, that is when we will start shutting down our upper-mountain Alpine terrain that is prone to wet avalanche conditions.”
Through long thermometers from the top of the snow to the ground, ski areas like Breckenridge can monitor major changes in the snowpack that may lead to a wet slide.
If the temperature and the overall water content of the snowpack changes rapidly, the Breckenridge ski patrol team will close off terrain for the day. This time of year, T-Bar, Imperial SuperChair and Kensho SuperChair commonly close in the early afternoon hours if it is warm out because of the ski patrol team’s inability to mitigate wet slides like they can mitigate sluff and slab avalanche dangers in the middle of the winter.
“It is an avalanche danger we cannot mitigate other than closing, so that is what people will see this time of year,” Mortensen said. “One thing that a snowpack never likes is rapid change. This time of year, it’s rapid warming instead of rapid wind loading.”
Ultimately, Mortensen says he and his team take the safety of skiers and riders very seriously — making it their No. 1 priority at all times.
Skiers and riders need to pay attention to closed off terrain in order to keep themselves safe while also keeping in mind that the snow and weather conditions are prone to change from the top of the mountain to the bottom.
Oftentimes during the spring, the snow at the top of the mountain will be great, but the snow will start to become slow and sticky as the skier or rider nears the bottom. The rapid change in conditions can often cause sudden injuries which could sideline an individual from a couple months of activity during the summer months.
“My safety message to anyone skiing this time of year is that you still need to have your gear in top performing shape,” Mortensen said. “You can’t sit back and relax and not let your brain be engaged in the activity because you are still going to see variable conditions, and you have to be ready for it even though most conditions are going to be lots of fun.”
Breckenridge Ski Resort has not announced an official closing day for the 2022-23 season, but will stay open as long as the snow allows. Last season, Breckenridge closed on May 15.
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