How’s the Snow Pack in Leadville Today?
Below Average Reports for Ark Basin
Normally the elephant in the room would have been discussed far before the third week in January. But when worldwide pandemics, civil unrest, and political power plays dominate the news feeds, Colorado’s persistent drought conditions and below-average snowpack don’t seem quite as relevant. But with the weekend’s forecast calling for a series of snowstorms predicted to dump anywhere from 8 – 12″ of the white gold in the Colorado high country, conversations turn to a more hopeful season.
Because when you live at 10,200 feet, the snowpack is relevant. It’s part of the environment, it’s part of a lifestyle and it’s certainly part of the economy. So it’s time to check in with the experts and see what the snowpack is looking like and how things are stacking up in the backcountry near Leadville Today.
Most of the annual streamflow in the western United States originates as snowfall that has accumulated in the mountains during the winter and early spring. As snowpack accumulates each year, hydrologists measure the snow and estimate the runoff that will occur when it melts. To predict this annual runoff, the Snow Survey & Water Supply Forecasting Program manages and maintains a comprehensive network of manually-measured snow courses and automated Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) monitoring sites throughout the West. Administered by the National Water & Climate Center, the Program collects and distributes timely, quality-controlled snowpack, water supply, and soil climate data to users worldwide.
Although many storms have brought significant snow to the mountains since the start of the season, it has not been enough snow to improve the current drought that started in the fall of 2019 and worsened considerably in the summer of 2020. In fact, even the locals will tell you, there ain’t much snow out there!
According to the experts at SNOWtel with the National Water and Climate Center the Arkansas River Basin which houses Leadville and Lake County is at 93% of its average level. And that’s not too bad at this point in the season, considering most of the participation shows up in March and April, not January and February. But this time of year, it’s about the economy, most specifically winter recreation.
In Leadville, it’s Ski Cooper that relies on 100% natural snow to keep its slopes running smooth. And in the 2020/21 season snowfall has just compounded an already challenging season with COVID restrictions costing time and money not to mention the travel restrictions which lead to a reduction in visitor numbers. At this point, Ski Cooper officials report that they are operating with 100 % of their terrain is skiable, having just recently got their new-last-year Piney Basin Trail open for the season.
In the days ahead, readers can expect to see just a few flurries/snow showers along the higher peaks of the Continental Divide through the day as weak energy ripples through the flow, though any snowfall amounts will be negligible. Less wind and mixing today should lead to slightly cooler max temps at many locations, though still a nice day along and east of the mountains where temps will climb back into the 50s. Inverted mountain valleys will again struggle to warm and cut back temps over usual cold spots in the San Luis and Upper Rio Grande Valleys. Tonight, weak downslope gradient west of I-25 will keep mins up slightly, with seasonably cold readings elsewhere. High mountain valleys will again decouple and drop toward zero by early Fri morning.
Measuring Snow for Spring Water Supplies
Lake County Avalanche Conditions
It seems a matter of sense that as the snowfall is below average levels for this winter that avalanche danger would reduce at an equivalent rate. While that was not the case early in the season with persistent slab conditions being the primary concern, the experts at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) have reduced their danger alert system warning for the Sawatch Range from moderate to low in most areas. However, backcountry users should be especially cautious at treeline where triggering remote slab avalanches is still considered a moderate risk. It’s the ultimate experience of feeling the earth move under your feet/skis/snowshoes!
In addition, backcountry users should also consider a visit to the new Avalanche Beacon Park just over the hill in Minturn. It’s a great training opportunity especially for any less experienced members of your group. The full CAIC report can be read below.
by Polly Layton, Colorado Avalanche Information Center
Issued on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021 at 6:52 a.m.
Our persistent weak layer at the bottom of the snowpack is still present, the primary variable now is the slab. Most snow below treeline is no longer cohesive and loose snow sluffing is more likely than slab avalanches. Above treeline, strong winds hammered the snow into a hard slab. The thick, knife hard snow sitting at the surface, does not allow the weight of a human to easily influence those pesky facets to near the ground. The problem lies in the transition zone between the totally faceted soft snow below treeline and the knife hard sastrugi above treeline.
Near treeline is the most likely place to trigger avalanches. The snow at these elevations did not get as affected by the wind on the surface. The slab from early December is not completely broken down either. The weight of a human can still initiate an avalanche on the facets below. In areas where these slopes are connected to deep firm snow at upper elevations, an avalanche is likely to propagate under the hard slab and release the entire slope.
Above treeline, the transition zone between bare ground to firm snow can also be a trigger point. A thinner slab sits near the edge of the snow and around rock outcroppings or buried obstacles. The weight of a human or a machine can tip the scales in these areas and initiate a deep avalanche that breaks across the whole slope.
To avoid these issues, stick to below treeline slopes without steep slopes above you. Ride low angle terrain near treeline. Avoid any slope over 35 degrees that start above treeline and continue through near treeline elevations.
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.
Triggering Remote Slab Avalanches
It’s Winter Driving Time
By Master Trooper Gary Cutler
Well we have a couple of snowstorms under our belt already this year and we have had our standard crashes that come with those storms. Just as you need to get used to your sea legs when sailing, you need to be ready for snow when driving and how your vehicle will respond to different surface textures. So, these are the topics I want to hit on in this article this year: freezing rain, windblown snow, and compacted snow.
Freezing rain scares me the most. I’ve been doing this job for 17 years now and in my opinion, this one catches drivers off-guard the most each year. Because a driver sees the road, speeds are usually faster and the resulting crashes are more extreme. It comes down to how drivers perceive road conditions when the roadway surface, whether it be asphalt or concrete, is visible. So, this means speeds remain too fast because drivers don’t consider the road surface may be slick. Just because you can see the roadway doesn’t mean it’s safe for fast speeds. If it’s raining and the temperatures are low, that rain can quickly turn to black ice.
Windblown roads. This is when it has snowed, but no longer snowing and there are wind gusts blowing snow over the roadway. Sometimes this is only happening in specific areas, so the perception is the road surfaces are dry. But in fact, this area will ice up a road almost immediately. Especially as the snow blows across the roadway and vehicles drive over and compact the snow even more turning it icy. Drivers assume that since it’s no longer snowing and the roads are clear, speeds can be higher. Not always so.
Compacted snow roadway surfaces. This is when the snow on the road has a visible amount of snow on it and has been compacted. This can cause traction to be a problem. There can also be a layer of ice that is hidden causing driving on it to be even more dangerous. Treat it as a slick surface.
When driving in adverse weather and you are around other vehicles, make sure to give yourself more distance for stopping. There is no reason to be so close that when your tires don’t grab, you end up meeting your fellow driver in a fender bender. Try to double your usual distance. That may seem a lot, but it helps prevent unintentional crashes.
To all of my 4-wheel drivers out there. I know, I have a truck too, but just because you have better traction doesn’t mean you won’t end up off the side of the road or hitting someone because the truck slid into them. We cover many truck crashes in the winter due to overconfidence in how they handle bad weather. Also, try not to get too close to vehicles going slower than you due to road conditions.
One last thought. Anytime the roads look wet, from either water or snow on them, never use your cruise control. If you hit standing water, snow, or ice, and you have cruise control on you are more than likely going to wreck. It’s a mixture of slower reaction time and braking when you shouldn’t be braking that late.
Remember to use my favorite saying. If it’s raining, treat the road as if it’s snowing. If it’s snowing, treat the road as if it’s ice. If the road is icy, just stay home. Drive safely, arrive alive.
As always, safe travels!
Officer Gary Cutler is a Public Information Officer for the Colorado State Patrol.