PI Editorial: Stay safe as you enjoy Colorado’s winter recreation opportunities in the backcountry

Post Independent Editorial Board

Avalanche risk has decreased throughout Colorado recently, but don’t mistake that for meaning navigating the backcountry is a walk in the park.

The best thing you can do to stay safe is take a backcountry safety course and pay close attention to reports from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center at Recently, CAIC Deputy Director Brian Lazar visited with our editorial board to talk about current snow conditions in Colorado’s high country. 

First, the great news: Our snowpack is well above average for this time of year. It’s still possible that we finish the season below average if we end up having a dry, warmer winter from here on out but it’s a good start to ever-so-slightly easing our ongoing drought conditions.

The bad news is that our November storms followed by dry weather created an unstable layer of snow for all of our recent snow to pile up on. That weak layer isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The good news is that an unstable snowpack has become a bit safer due to the sheer volume of powder this season, Lazar said. An early weak layer of snow has been buried so deep — in many places but not all — that it is getting more and more difficult for humans to trigger avalanches.

But the risk remains elevated in areas where snowpack remains less than 5 feet deep, Lazar added.

And things can change quickly. After this past weekend’s snowstorm, the CAIC issued a Special Avalanche Advisory for the Flat Top Mountains north of Glenwood Springs through Monday. “You can easily trigger a large avalanche in the storm snow. Safe travel in backcountry avalanche terrain requires cautious route finding. Avoid travel on or below slopes steeper than about 30 degrees,” the advisory states. The same storm brought “High” avalanche danger to the mountains around Steamboat Springs.

Depending on how the spring goes, the deep snow today could mean a risk of larger than normal avalanches later in the season. Time will only tell, Lazar said, which is why it’s important that skiers, snowmobilers, winter hikers and anyone else looking to go into the mountains during winter check avalanche reports as often as possible.

Awareness and knowledge are the baseline tools for anyone who wants to venture out into the backcountry. In Colorado, we are lucky to have a dedicated group of people (and volunteers submitting observation reports) analyzing weather and data to provide as accurate an avalanche forecast as possible through the CAIC.

Before going out, be sure to familiarize yourself with CAIC’s most recent reports — and make sure you understand what it says. Bolster that knowledge by attending an avalanche safety course through one of the providers listed on CAIC’s Resources web page. That will give you a good foundation for safe practices and an opportunity to practice with the necessary equipment such as a beacon, probe, shovel and snow saw.

Then, when you have a good base for avalanche safety, partner up with other safety-minded individuals; don’t go out into the backcountry alone. When coming up with a plan for what you want to do and where you want to go, consider the overall risk of your goals and consider crafting a Plan B in case it’s too risky to proceed with your original trip. Having a good backup plan can ease some of the mental pressures you might feel to proceed with your first, more risky option. The bottom line is it’s hard to call off a backcountry trip when the options are to do it or go home, so give your group a viable alternative so you still have a fun day.

The Post Independent editorial board members are Publisher Peter Baumann, Managing Editor/Senior Reporter John Stroud and community representatives Mark Fishbein and Danielle Becker.

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