Backcountry avalanche risk increases for Vail and Summit County area |

Backcountry avalanche risk increases for Vail and Summit County area

A group of backcountry skiers stand along a ridge in Mayflower Gulch earlier this winter. With the recent storm, Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters raised the avalanche risk to "considerable" Wednesday, a level 3 on the groups five point danger scale.
Sebastian Foltz / |

While in-bounds skiers will take full advantage of the 8 to 12 inches of fresh snow that dropped on Summit County Wednesday, Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters are once again urging caution with backcountry travel.

The CAIC bumped the avalanche risk from moderate (level 2) to considerable (level 3) Wednesday morning, meaning natural avalanches are possible and human-triggered slides are likely. That threat level is expected to remain in the forecast until the new snow has a chance to settle.

“We’re seeing avalanche activity,” CAIC deputy director Brian Lazar said Wednesday afternoon. “It doesn’t seem like a huge load, but the snow is dense.”

Given the lack of snow in January and a number of weak layers in the snowpack, Lazar expects snow stability to be tested during the next few days.

“We haven’t tickled those weak layers in quite some time, so I would be cautious,” he added.

Field observations to the CAIC reported some substantial human-caused slides near Vail and Vail Pass during the day Wednesday. One slide was said to have a crown — or break-off point — between 3 and 6 feet deep in places. No one was injured in the slides.

With moderate westerly winds during the storm and gusts of up to 40 mph expected overnight Wednesday, wind-loading is one of the primary concerns on eastern facing slopes steeper than 30 degrees and at or above tree line.

Snow drifts up to 2 feet deep are expected to put added pressure on some slopes. Potential trigger points include areas just below ridges and cornices, behind small groups of trees, as well as cross-loaded gullies.

Deeper early-season weak layers on northwest and north- through east-facing slopes continue to be a concern for deep persistent-slab avalanches.

The overlapping threat of wind slab and deep persistent-slab avalanches will make north- through east-facing slopes especially susceptible to slides for the next few days.

CAIC director Ethan Greene reminded backcountry travelers that most fatal accidents occur during or immediately following a storm, when the threat is estimated to be between levels 2 and 3 on the 5-level danger scale.

Skiers should stick to low-angled slopes — those of less than 30 degrees — until the snowpack has had a chance to settle.

“There’s a lot of good recreation to be done out there,” Greene said. “You want to make sure that you are clued-in to the avalanche conditions so you can recreate safely.”

Colorado has already had two fatal avalanches this winter. The state average is between six and eight fatalities annually.

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