Avalanches in Colorado

Colorado has seen a historic avalanche season with snow tearing down in unprecedented magnitude.

In December I wrote a column for The Mountain Mail about the potential for heightened avalanche activity later this season. The avalanche activity is not a result of historic snowfall but rather a combination of factors that were evident as far back as October 2018.

Here is the lede of the column describing the forthcoming avalanche potential.

For the most zealous skiers and snowboarders winter returns like a sigh of relief. The early snow is a welcome sight but could lead to problems later in the season in the form of increased snow instability.

“Dawn Patrol - Staying Safe” is reprinted below in its entirety. The latest Dawn Patrol Column is available here.

Stay safe this avalanche season.

John Cameron

For the most zealous skiers and snowboarders winter returns like a sigh of relief. The early snow is a welcome sight but could lead to problems later in the season in the form of increased snow instability.

Snow that fell over central Colorado in October and November may lead to persistent weaknesses within the snowpack that could lurk long into the season.

Whether skiing in bounds or outside a ski resort it is important to know the hazards of avalanche terrain. Any snow covered terrain in the mountains should be approached with a fair amount of caution.

After snow lands on the ground it starts to change shape. Over time a snowpack could either strengthen or weaken. Unfortunately for all backcountry users the conditions following early season snowfall often result in a snowpack becoming weaker. Extremely cold overnight temperatures, low sun angle and shallow snow depth are all key factors that could lead to poorly bonded or weaker snow.

If no more snow fell the story would be over. The hazard would never increase and we wouldn’t have a season to speak of either. We are here to ski.

When storms begin to roll in from the Pacific Ocean they bring with them large amounts of moisture. The most exciting of these systems is the Pineapple Express. It charges straight across the continent and can bring several feet of snow to the mountains of central Colorado. As the snow piles up so can potential avalanche hazard.

Large, destructive slab avalanches can break loose under the heavy loads of new snow. The most ominous being ones sliding on persistent weak layers that formed early in the season.

Only time will tell how this season’s snowpack shapes up.

The best way to reduce your risk of getting caught in an avalanche is to avoid being on or under any snow covered slope but as skiers, snowboarders, slowmobilers and snowshoers we try to balance the risk.

Ski resorts around the state as well as the Colorado Department of Transportation will deploy a number of methods to mitigate avalanche hazards including the use of explosive charges intended to disrupt troublesome layers in the snow.

For backcountry users avalanche hazard is mitigated making responsible travel choices, carrying the proper equipment and, most importantly, the proper information. Your tools are no use if you don’t know how to use them properly to rescue yourself and your partners.

The most important tool for mitigating avalanche hazard is avalanche education. Courses are offered frequently around the state from a number of providers and range from a 2-day weekend course to a 2 year program in snow science from Colorado Mountain College.

Other tools that should be carried by each person in the backcountry include an avalanche transceiver (or beacon,) probe, shovel and first aid kit. I would also include a two-way radio for each member of your group as well. The most important thing to remember is that each tool is only as good as the person expected to use it.

For people just starting out on the path of avalanche enlightenment a worthy first step is a program called Know Before You Go. It is a free avalanche awareness presentation endorsed by the Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. While it cannot itself be considered adequate training on the subject it will help light your path.

As we slip deeper into winter those that wish for snow should continue their dances, raise your glasses and get your passes.  

Get smart and stay safe. Here’s to a good season.