Promising backcountry avalanche forecast due to spring snowpack |

Promising backcountry avalanche forecast due to spring snowpack

Ryan Rasmussen of Silverthorne airs off a jump built on Loveland Pass with Eric Richardson and Noah Liszewski looking on. The group, together with Mike Cappola and Alex Keimel, spent the day building and skiing off the jump near Highway 6.
Sebastian Foltz |

While the big resorts like Breckenridge Ski Resort and Copper Mountain Resort may have closed for the winter, for serious backcountry enthusiasts, it’s still full-on ski season. Whether it is building terrain-park style kickers up on Loveland Pass, alpine touring at one of the closed resorts or getting on those steep lines deeper in the backcountry, now is the time.

“If you like skiing big lines and skiing off peaks, this is the prime season,” avid local ski mountaineer Joe Howdyshell said of current conditions. Describing his motivation, he added, “For me the mountains are the ultimate test. They’re never going to lie to you and tell you you’re getting better.”

According to Colorado Avalanche Information Center officials, it’s looking as though this spring’s snowpack will be fairly stable compared to some years past.

This week marked the two-year anniversary of the fatal slide on Loveland Pass that killed four snowboarders and one skier. It was Colorado’s most fatal avalanche in 50 years.

Conditions that spring, however, were decidedly different. The avalanche was caused by a weak layer deep in the snowpack, and that spring had seen substantial late season snowfall.

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“That was a much different season,” CAIC deputy director Brian Lazar said Thursday of the fatal slide. “We were dealing with a deep persistent slab problem.”

Persistent slab avalanches occur when a number of layers of snow are stacked on top of a weak layer from earlier in the season. While less frequent, eventually with enough pressure and a proper trigger, those slides release on a larger scale. Portions of the Loveland slide broke off as much as 12 feet deep in the snowpack with an average depth of 5 feet at the crown of the slide.

While such a large-scale slide is unlikely this spring, Lazar and the forecasting center still urges caution with more snow on the way.

“You still have got to be thinking about the potential for avalanche,” he said. “Right now we’re worried about generally smaller avalanche in the recent storm snow.”

He said to be cautious near ridgelines and cornices prone to windloading.

In late spring, wet slides are typically the primary concern — when the sun melts the snow to a point where it is more susceptible to a slide, generally later in the afternoon — but with the cooling trend conditions have not been spring-like.

“We’re not really in a full-fledged melt cycle,” Lazar explained. “It’s a bit more wintery than folks might expect.”

That trend is expected to continue through the weekend with additional snow at higher elevations.

Windloading is a continuing concern with new snow building on certain slopes.

Consistent late-season snow has maintained the snowpack in the greater Summit County area between 90 and 100 percent of average, with lower numbers in the Vail Valley. Cooler temperatures in recent weeks have also led to fairly consistent snowpack stability.

“In the springtime everything consolidates,” Howdyshell said. A properly bonded snowpack is key to slope stability.

Anyone venturing out this spring should still consult the CAIC forecast. While no longer daily or regional at this time of year, the CAIC will continue to issue a statewide forecast Wednesday through Sunday on their website,

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