Avalanche Fatalities Rise Over Weekend
Lake County Slide Reported Same Day
The tragedy of this weekend’s news that two more backcountry users – and their dog – were killed in an avalanche near Hoosier Pass on Friday, Jan. 7 sent out the second, and third round of condolences from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) as the fatalities related to snow slides rose to three, so far, this season.
Meanwhile closer to home, Lake County residents were reminded of the importance of a #knowbeforeyougo mentality when CAIC reported an avalanche at Chalk Mountain, a very popular backcountry and snowmobile user area along Highway 91 between Leadville and Fremont Pass. The field report was filed by CAIC Director and Leadville resident Dr. Ethan Green who measured the slide at 200 feet in width with a 3-foot crown.
While this week’s stretch of bluebird skies and sunshine will call recreationists to come and explore, it’s critical to understand what the risks are and how you can enjoy the Rocky Mountains in the safest manner possible.
Readers can find the most recent CAIC report for the SAWATCH Region as of this morning at 7 a.m. below as well as information about the Avalanche Beacon Training Park, a great idea for your group before your next trek!
From Half to 100%+ of 30-year Norm
by Dylan Craaybeek, Colorado Avalanche Information Center
The following report was filed for the Sawatch Region, which encompasses Leadville and Lake County was filed on Mon, Jan 10, 2022, at 7:22 AM
Currently, the Gunnison Basin (where the Gunnison and parts of the Grand Mesa forecast zone are found) sits at 160% of its 1991-2020 mean Snow Water Equivalency (SWE) and the Colorado Headwaters (where the part of the Grand Mesa, Aspen, and northern parts of the Sawatch zone are found) sits at 122% the 1991-2020 mean SWE. On December 6, 2021, these SWE averages were 46% and 55% respectively. In about a month, most of the Central Mountains went from less than half to well over 100% of their 30-year normal. The bulk of precipitation happened from December 24 to New Year’s Day.
If you are out enjoying this abundance of snow and recreating in the backcountry during this period of clear and sunny weather there are a few things you need to be aware of. The mountains may not give you the usual clues of shooting cracks and collapsing of the snowpack warning you of the danger. You can trigger an avalanche from well below a slope or some distance away as these snowmobilers found out in the Front Range forecast zone over the weekend. You can still trigger an avalanche on a slope that has tracks on it from other backcountry users.
The good news is that we know where the most dangerous slopes exist. October and November storms brought us a fair amount of snow followed by several weeks of dry weather that brought us well below or 30-year normal SWE levels. During this period of dry weather the snow on most south, southwest, and west slopes melted completely. Where it did not melt, many northerly and easterly facing slopes, the snow faceted and grew weak. Now, a deeper than average snowpack has formed a rigid and cohesive slab. Where this slab rests on old, weak snow, you can trigger large and deadly avalanches.
You can use a number of travel techniques to reduce your chances of triggering an avalanche. Avoid rock outcrops and convex rollovers where the slab is thinner and you are more likely to affect those deeply buried weak layers. Locate and travel on areas of consistently deep snow (deeper than about 6 feet). You can do this by probing or digging. Stick to south, southwest, and west-facing slopes where the early season weak snow doesn’t exist. If you are uncertain of conditions, you can always avoid traveling on or directly under slopes steeper than about 30 degrees to drastically reduce your risk of getting caught in an avalanche.
Avy Safety Training in Ark Valley
By Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center (RMOC)
It’s that time of year when Colorado’s backcountry powder is too good to resist and hundreds of people flock out-of-bounds for some mind-blowing turns. However, in a split second, an avalanche can turn a day of winter fun into a nightmare. By the time you know what’s happening, you’re in a life-or-death scenario. Will you make it out alive? Will your friends?
It’s a sad reality that in Colorado, avalanche deaths are an annual occurrence and that they also spiked during the 2020/2021 winter season. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, over the last 10 winters, an average of 27 people died in avalanches each year in the United States, and Colorado experienced the greatest number of those avalanche deaths—nearly twice as much as the second deadliest state, Alaska.
The winter backcountry is complex. If you’re venturing into it, you need education so you can understand the hazards and learn how to manage risk. Fortunately, it’s possible to access AIARE (The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) courses here in Colorado with Buena Vista-based RMOC (Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center), so your day in the backcountry can be a safer one.
RMOC’s series of AIARE courses will get you prepared to recreate in the backcountry regardless of your current avalanche safety training. Courses range in price from $180 – 240. They operate in the Sawatch Range of Central Colorado and have access to a variety of zones, including Monarch Pass, Independence Pass, and Fremont Pass. 2022 Dates range on the calendar from March into April
The three courses currently offered are the following.
- AIARE Level 1 is a 24-hour course introducing both new and experienced recreational backcountry travelers about how to manage avalanche hazards.
- AIARE Avalanche Rescue course is appropriate for aspiring avalanche professionals. This one-day (8-hour) course is intended to be retaken on a regular basis in order to keep abreast of best practices in rescue techniques and gear.
- AIARE Level 2 builds on your experience as a backcountry traveler learning more skills to connect weather, snowpack, and avalanche processes and identify how these processes relate to observations and travel within avalanche terrain. This can enable you to act as a leader within a small travel group and to identify and target reducing uncertainty about the terrain or conditions.
AIARE was established in 1998 as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit educational organization to create a researched-based avalanche education model for back-country users with the belief that avalanche education, research, and training can prevent injuries and fatalities due to avalanches. AIARE develops and disseminates research-based avalanche curriculum to over 100 Providers in the US, South America, Europe, and Asia.
The Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center has been a leader in outdoor adventure since 1982. They invite you to ‘Choose Your own Adventure’ in their wonderful outdoor playground. Activities include kayaking, rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, inflatable kayaks, stand-up paddling (SUP), and guided summit hikes on the surrounding 14,000-foot peaks.
Beacon Training Park: Now Open
The White River National Forest’s avalanche 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 at #CAIC