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Colorado Avalanche forecasters caution “considerable” backcountry threat

Backcountry skiers prepare to drop in on a ridge at Mayflower Gulch earlier this season.
Sebastian Foltz / sfoltz@summitdaily.com |

With recent storms and more snow expected for the weekend, forecasters with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center are once again cautioning backcountry travelers.

“There’s plenty of risk out there right now,” CAIC director Ethan Greene said Wednesday, adding, “most avalanches happen during and right after snowstorms.”

Human-triggered slides will also continue to be a concern once the storms subside.



The CAIC raised its danger level to considerable — a three on the center’s five-tiered scale — this week for terrain near or above timberline. That means in those areas natural avalanches are possible and human-triggered slides are likely. Greene said that barring a significant increase in the amount of snow in the forecast, that rating will likely remain through the weekend.

While the danger level is expected to stay at a three, the CAIC also reminds prospective backcountry travelers that most fatal incidents occur when the danger level is between two and three, and the size of a slide does not necessarily correlate to the danger.



“Risk is a tough thing to predict,” Greene said. “People can die in very small avalanches. The best thing you can do to be safe and get home is not get caught in an avalanche. Once you’re in an avalanche you don’t have that many options you can do to keep yourself safe.”

Colorado had its third fatal avalanche incident of the season with a relatively small out-of-bounds slide near Aspen Monday. The state annually averages between six and eight fatal incidents, most of which could be avoided with the proper precaution.

With the current threat level, CAIC forecasters recommend exercising extreme caution with regard to route finding. Terrain below 30 degrees is generally more stable under current conditions.

Persistent-slab avalanches, or slides caused by weak layers deep in the snowpack, continue to be a threat for northwest and north- through east-facing slopes. New snow falling on top of the weak layers could make a larger deeper slide possible on those faces.

Wind-slab avalanches are also a concern with drifting snow on northwest and east- through south-facing slopes, especially below ridgelines and downwind of terrain features like trees, gullies and rock formations where snow can build up. These types of slides can be a threat during the week following any storm until the snowpack has had time to settle.

Even with forecasts calling for only incremental increases in snowfall moving forward, that amount could add up to significant stress on the stability of the snowpack through the weekend.

“Those progressive loading events have a tendency to sneak up on you,” Greene said of weather patterns similar to the current one. “At some point they will start to add up and we’ll start to see more, bigger avalanches on these weak layers.”

He reminded backcountry users to check the forecast before venturing out, and bring proper equipment for any trip.


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