Snow Storms Continue This Week
Leadville definitely has snow. In addition, some areas of Lake County are reporting more than two feet has stacked up from the recent February storms. All that on top of an early October start which laid down the base for the season and set it in stone with below freezing temperatures. Even the long-timers are calling it a true Leadville winter.
And if forecasters are accurate winter’s icy blasts are far from over, at least for this week. It doesn’t look like those Colorado blue skies will be returning anytime soon, with temperatures not even reaching freezing at 10,152 feet this week. How are your pipes holding up? How are those snow-loads looking on your rooftop looking? No doubt, many Leadvillites will be spending their Sundays with the shovel in hand, and the plows in overdrive.
And while many may be focused more on their driveways than backcountry conditions, it’s important to stay situational aware of avalanche danger. Because it doesn’t just threaten backcountry adventurers but also local commuters as roadways are more susceptible to highway closures from snow and rock slides. Two avalanches have already been officially recorded in Lake County for this month alone. To that end, Leadville Today brings you the following reports from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) experts.
Recent Avalanches in Lake County
Since the beginning of February, two significant avalanches have been reported in Lake County. Fortunately, neither ended in any injuries or worse, a fatality, but one was a pretty close call for a backcountry adventurer. Last Tuesday, Feb. 12, Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) forecaster Jason Konigsberg reported an avalanche which was triggered by snowmobilers south of Fremont Pass.
“One snowmobiler had to accelerate through the trees to escape the avalanche running towards him,” stated the observation filed last week on the state’s official website.
A bit earlier this month, and a bit closer to home, there was an avalanche reported in Buckeye Gulch, located just a few miles north of Leadville, above Highway 91, prompting an official visit from CAIC. Here again is forecaster Jason Konigsberg’s account of that avalanche incident which was filed last Monday, Feb. 11.
“We went to look at large avalanche that ran into Buckeye Gulch near the Sangree M. Froelicher Hut. The avalanche ran full path approximately 1000 vertical feet. The slide took out small trees and broke many branches on the uphill side of old growth trees located at the historic trim line. The avalanche also piled deep debris in Buckeye Gulch and ran about 50 vertical up the other side of the gully wall. The crown face was approximately 500 feet wide and broke 6 to 10 feet deep on the looker left with shallower crown heights towards the peak on the lookers right. The avalanche stepped down to the ground in places. The avalanche likely broke on a mid-pack facet. This is a heavily wind-loaded area, especially with the recent southwest winds. It was interesting how destructive this avalanche was although the slab did not extend very far below the ridgeline. It would be easy for a backcountry traveler on a lower slope below not to realize the overhead danger. Many ski tracks were along the sides of the debris as this a popular area for people staying at the hut. Also interesting was the amount of snow that was entrained by engulfing weak snow at lower elevations. At below treeline elevations, there were 2-3 ft walls on the sides of the debris flow where the avalanche gouged into older and weaker snow.”
The Regional Avalanche Report
By: Ben Pritchett, CAIC Report for Sat, Feb. 16, 2019 at 8:08 AM
Around the Central Mountains, storm totals through yesterday stacked up to around one to two feet of dense snow. Today (2/16/19) we’ve got more snow and wind on the way which will continue to aggravate the snowpack. There’s a variety of avalanche types you might trigger, but the bottom line is that you can trigger large avalanches on many steep slopes. Here’s a couple of observations from Friday that illustrate some of the current avalanche patterns.
Early Thursday morning, west to northwest winds raged around the state, shifting the storm snow load around the landscape, particularly near and above treeline. Today’s stormy conditions will make evaluating terrain difficult for a couple reasons. One, visibility will be difficult, so you may struggle to see the evidence of prior drifting where the danger is greatest. Two, the newly fallen snow will bury the old textures in soft snow, making it difficult to feel the drifts underneath you. Without reliable visibility or sense of feel, you may be left with broad assumptions. On days like this, use a larger than normal margin of safe terrain if you venture into the mountains.
The other key regional highlight is that the shallower portions of the Central Mountains have finally developed a stiff and dangerous slab. Taylor Park on the western slope of the Sawatch is a perfect example of an area that’s particularly dangerous today, though the story repeats in any areas with less than about 5 feet of total snowpack depth. At the beginning of this week, Taylor Park had about 6 inches of accumulated snow water equivalent so far this season. By week’s end, the total snow water equivalent grew to nearly 8 inches. That’s an incredibly rapid load on a widespread weak, faceted base. The upshot is that in shallow parts of the Central Mountain, you’re likely to trigger a large Persistent Slab avalanche on any steep features, or even far below steep features. Take those large margins for a storm day, and extend them a little further.
Cautious route finding is required for safe travel today. For readers interested in more specific weather data for Leadville, connect HERE.
February Avalanche Accident Trends
Over the last 10 years, February has proven to be the single most dangerous month for avalanches in Colorado. Over a quarter of the fatal avalanche accidents happened during this month. In the past decade, there have been 15 fatal avalanche accidents in the month of February. Eight of those accidents occurred in the middle of the month, and 4 between Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day. Historically, this weekend has been a dangerous period for avalanche accidents. But avalanche education and safety awareness can help to break that pattern.
Close Calls in January: How It Compares?
As of January 31, the CAIC has documented 57 people caught in 42 separate avalanche events. Seven of the people have been critically (head under the snow) or fully buried, and two have died. Of those, 60% of the involvements occurred in January, including both fatalities. The 56 cumulative involvements this year are far more than recorded for all of 2017-18, 2015-16, and 2014-15. Projections indicate that the 2018-19 winter season will tally the most avalanches on record with the CAIC.
About the CAIC
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) is a program within the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Executive Director’s Office. The program is a partnership between the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Department of Transportation (CDOT), and the Friends of the CAIC (FoCAIC) a 501c3 group. The mission of the CAIC is to provide avalanche information, education and promote research for the protection of life, property and the enhancement of the state’s economy.
History of The CAIC
Since 1950 avalanches have killed more people in Colorado than any other natural hazard, and in the United States, Colorado accounts for one-third of all avalanche deaths. The Colorado Avalanche Warning Center began issuing public avalanche forecasts in 1973 as part of a research program in the USDA-Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. The program moved out of the federal government and into the Colorado state government, becoming part of the Department of Natural Resources in 1983. The CAIC joined the Colorado Department of Transportation’s highway safety program in 1993. The Friends of the CAIC (a 501c3 group) formed in 2007 to promote avalanche safety in Colorado and support the recreation program of the CAIC.
Funding for the CAIC
About half of the CAIC’s funding comes from an intergovernmental agreement with CDOT to provide training and forecasting for highway maintenance operations. As part of the Department of Natural Resources, close to 40% of the Center’s funding come from the Severance Tax Fund. The rest of the funding to run the program comes from the United States Forest Service, local governments, the Friends of the CAIC, and from donations from people like you.