Fourth Avalanche Fatality in Backcountry
Caution Issued for Lake County Region
The fourth deadly avalanche of the season happened over Christmas weekend, shining the spotlight on dangerous backcountry conditions as the next round of storms rolls across the state. The current situation has prompted the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) to increase the danger alert in the Sawatch Region – and many others – increasing the chances of snowslides triggered by humans or occurring naturally.
On Saturday, Dec. 26, a backcountry tourer was killed in an avalanche in First Creek, an area locally known as Chimney Chute located several miles south of the Winter Park Ski Resort. The terrain where the deadly snowslide occurred is considered steep and narrow, north-facing and below treeline, according to reports from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). The victim was recovered by the Grand County Search and Rescue Team with members using an avalanche probe.
Crews from CAIC were on site yesterday, December 27. Readers can keep track of updates regarding this incident on the CAIC website which will provide more details as they become available. Condolences go out to the friends and family of the victim.
Sawatch Region Under New Warning
For readers who may not know, the Leadville and Lake County area is considered to be in the Sawatch Region which has been put on an “Avalanche Watch” beginning today, December 28, and lasting possibly for several days depending on snow accumulations. In the short term according to CAIC officials, a strong storm is approaching Colorado. This new snow will fall on a very weak snowpack. As a result, the avalanche danger will rise Monday afternoon and into Tuesday. It will be easy to trigger large, dangerous, avalanches by Tuesday and some will release naturally. Pay attention to changing conditions and increasing avalanche danger Monday night and on Tuesday.
Conditions on Independence Pass
Avalanche Dangers Increases Across Colorado
By Bo Torrey, CAIC on Sun, Dec 27, 2020 at 8:16 a.m.
Fresh snow, clear skies, a holiday weekend and a lot of people looking to recreate in the mountains with a dangerous persistent weak layer is a worrisome combination. All the ingredients are in place for people to trigger avalanches and get into trouble. Whether you are traveling on skis, snowboard, snowshoes, snowmachine or a pogo-stick, careful terrain selection and route planning are imperative to avoid an avalanche accident. Get your shovel out and dig down to look at the snowpack layering on similar aspect and elevation to slopes you plan to ride, if you find a cohesive slab thicker than about 10 inches above weak faceted snow than you’ve found the exact Persistent Slab snowpack structure we need to avoid right now.
In the southern portions of the Grand Mesa and Gunnison zones the obvious signs of instability have become less frequent and reports of human-triggered avalanches are fewer but that doesn’t mean that the snowpack is stable and that you can’t trigger a deadly avalanche today. It means that the snowpack has begun to settle and that it’s becoming less reactive to triggers. That’s not the case in the Sawatch and Aspen mountains where the avalanche hazard remains elevated for natural and human-triggered avalanches. The mountains near Independence Pass and Cottonwood Pass are especially dangerous right now where large avalanches have occurred over the last several days, many of which were triggered remotely from several hundred feet away.
The potential to remotely trigger avalanches signals a few alarms. Safe travel protocol and conservative terrain choices are essential right now. Stick to traveling on low-angle slopes and avoid travel in any avalanche run out zones. Familiarize yourself with the area you’re planning to travel in, understand that the avalanche hazard might be hundreds of feet above you. Avalanche are breaking in hard-to-predict ways, so the best practice is to give yourself wide buffers when traveling around steeper terrain.
As you head out today, pay attention to how the weather is contributing to the avalanche hazard. A few quick inches of snow and some gusty winds can and will change conditions. Use small harmless slopes to test snow sensitivity if you start to notice a change in conditions. Cracking and collapse are sure signs that conditions are changing.
The avalanche danger will increase later today as storm snow accumulates. You can trigger avalanches on steep slopes that face north, east, and southeast where you find a thick, cohesive slab over weak snow near the ground. Upper-elevation slopes where wind drifted snow into thicker, harder slabs will produce deeper and more dangerous avalanches. Pay attention to rapidly changing conditions and look for obvious indicators that the snowpack is becoming unstable; such as recent avalanches, shooting cracks, or collapses of the snowpack.
To avoid avalanches today travel on slopes less than 30-degrees that are not below or adjacent to steeper slopes as you can trigger avalanches from several hundred feet away or even from flat areas connected to steep slopes.
Beacon Park Open for Training
The White River National Forest’s new beacon training park outside Minturn gives the public an easily accessible opportunity to practice using avalanche transceivers, a critical piece of safety equipment for winter backcountry recreation.
“Record numbers of people venturing into the backcountry, and the need for winter backcountry safety education is higher than ever,” said Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis. “Avalanche transceivers are key to finding avalanche victims as soon as possible, but they are only effective if people know how to use them.”
The beacon training park is situated a short climb up the slope at the Mountain Meadow Trailhead on U.S. 24, which is about ¼ mile from the I-70 Minturn exit.
The park, which was developed in partnership with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, consists of eight buried transmitters that can be turned on and off from a small control panel. This allows for multiple search scenarios to familiarize people with using their avalanche transceivers and probing the snow for victims. It’s a self-operating system open all day to the public.
“Beacon parks have traditionally been located at ski areas, where general public access may be limited to pass holders,” Veldhuis said. “This accessible public location should help encourage more people to become proficient using avalanche transceivers, which can help save lives.”
While avalanche transceivers are important if someone becomes buried in an avalanche, avoiding avalanches in the first place is the best strategy. Before heading into the backcountry, check the avalanche forecast.
The Historic 2019 Avalanche Season
In case you missed it, Dr. Ethan Greene, Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center presents information about the historic 2019 avalanche season in Colorado.
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), the 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.
The History of 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 CAIC: How To Donate
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 comes 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 donations from people like you. CLICK HERE to Donate.