Weak snow layer leads to 4 human-triggered weekend avalanches in Summit County
Over the weekend, the Summit County Rescue Group responded to four avalanches in Summit County. Everyone involved was able to get out safely, but officials warn that recreationists should exercise extreme caution when navigating in the backcountry over the next couple of months.
Three of the avalanches in Summit County occurred Sunday, March 20, according to data from the incidents.
The most significant slide took place on Glacier Peak above Saints John, close to the town of Montezuma. In that slide, two skiers who triggered the slide took a ride in the avalanche for about 200 feet before they were able to rescue themselves from the debris.
The other human-triggered slides Sunday took place on the north side of the Buffalo-Eccles saddle, near Mount Guyot, and in the Sky Chutes in the Tenmile Range near Copper Mountain Resort.
In addition to the avalanches in Summit, another two occurred in Routt County on Saturday, March 19. One to the east of Steamboat Springs killed a 49-year-old skier, and another in the California Park area was observed but did not catch anyone in its path.
Despite the onslaught of recent slides, the current avalanche danger is rated as moderate (2 out of 5), but experts warn that individuals still need to be cautious since the snowpack is very tender right now.
“Moderate danger means you can trigger a dangerous avalanche in specific locations, so you need to know where those specific locations are,” said Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “The way to do that is by looking at the avalanche forecast and planning your trip so you are avoiding the types of areas that the forecast describes.”
One of the main reasons for the current fragile snowpack is due to the reduced amount of snow the area received during February.
“We have a weak layer in the snowpack that was formed in February. That is where these avalanches are breaking,” Greene said. “Every weather event creates a layer in the snowpack. It could be a snowstorm, a wind storm or, in this case, a dry period of weather. Avalanches tend to break at the interfaces of those different layers.”
The snowfall that Summit saw at the end of February and during the beginning of March created a layer of fresh snow that has now produced slabs that are susceptible to breaking and sliding.
For the 2021-22 season, there have been 16 individuals caught by snow slides, including 10 who were buried. These slides have resulted in six fatalities in Colorado this season. Of those six deaths, three were on foot, two were skiing and one was snowboarding.
The total number of fatalities is behind Colorado’s 2020-21 season, which saw 12 slide-related fatalities. Avalanche officials say the lack of fatalities is in large part due to the prompt reporting of the slides and individuals knowing what to do if they encounter an avalanche.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center does not expect avalanche conditions to reach the low-risk level for several months, which means individuals will need to continue to exercise caution in the meantime to prevent future slides.
Those exploring the backcountry are urged to call authorities right away anytime an avalanche occurs.
“If you trigger an avalanche, even if no one is involved, it is a good idea to call 911 and tell the dispatcher what happened — whether you need help or that you triggered an avalanche and are OK,” Greene said.
Those in Summit County who witness an avalanche should call the nonemergency dispatch line at 970-668-8600 instead of calling 911 as long as no one is known to be in need of immediate assistance.
It is also a good idea to report avalanche activity to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center as it allows forecasters to write future forecasts and issue critical warnings.
In the avalanche that was triggered near Mount Guyot, the skier involved immediately called authorities about the incident.
Summit County Rescue Group spokesperson Anna DeBattiste said the prompt calling allowed the volunteer group not to deploy a large amount of resources toward the slide since current procedure is to deploy everyone on call if there isn’t much known about the slide. That policy is in place to search for individuals who could be trapped in the slide.
Individuals who go in the backcountry should also be adequately trained in not only avalanche awareness but also the use of avalanche tools.
All backcountry enthusiasts should be equipped with an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel.
“You just don’t want the equipment. You gotta have the knowledge of how to use the equipment, some practice using it and, most importantly, a buddy who knows how to use it. Because if you are out there stuck in an avalanche with a transceiver and a buddy who doesn’t know how to use it, it’s useless,” DeBattiste said.
A free Know Before You Go introduction course is offered on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website. More advanced courses are offered through Colorado Mountain College and the Colorado Mountain Club.
To file a report of an avalanche or see the current avalanche forecast, visit Avalanche.state.co.us. or call 303-499-9650.
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