The downside to early snow: Avalanches

We live in a cartoon paradise. It snowed two feet along the front range this week, and it might hit 60 degrees over the weekend. Still, make your backcountry plans with caution. The month of October has already seen an unusually high number of avalanches: five triggered by skiers and one by climbers, though no one has been seriously hurt.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) released as statement yesterday detailing the six incidents. The account sort of makes the Colorado backcountry seem like a massive excerpt from Mission: Impossible. Here are a couple highlights:

"The skier was taken for a ride, avoided rocks and cliffs, and ended up with only his legs buried."

"There was very little debris, not enough to get buried by the slide after the skier rode and tumbled about 150 vertical feet."

XTREME! The full descriptions can be read below. The CAIC maintains an avalanche forecast map, but they won't start until November. So for now, tread lightly and carry an Avalung.

The first avalanche incident occurred on October 5th on Mt Meeker in Rocky Mountain National Park. A small slab broke loose about 6 inches deep and 40 feet across and took two climbers on a short ride. The avalanche ran on the first pitch of the Dream Weaver alpine climb, on the east side of the prominent north buttress of Mt Meeker. The first pitch ramps up to 50 degrees in some places. This route can see significant cross-loading deposit any fresh snow as slab at several areas along the route, though primarily at the first and last pitches.

The second close call occurred on October 11th on Grizzly Peak south of Independence Pass. Three skiers remotely triggered an avalanche in a steep, northerly facing couloir. The slide broke down to rocks and summer snow, taking out the two to three feet of recent snow. The crown was estimated at 45 degrees, and the avalanche ran from near the summit to the lake, about 1200 vertical feet.

The third incident occurred on October 17th on the Tyndall Glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park. A skier triggered a two foot deep, 200 foot wide avalanche that ran over 200 vertical feet. The skier took a ride and was not buried. Again, the slide took out all the recent snow drifted onto the permanent snowfield underneath. The slope angle at the crown was estimated at 35 degrees, and it was on an east-northeast aspect.

The fourth incident occurred on October 23rd near Jones Pass. A skier triggered an avalanche and was caught mid-slab. The crown was about 80 feet above him, 2 feet deep, and 50 feet wide. The skier was taken for a ride, avoided rocks and cliffs, and ended up with only his legs buried. The slope was above treeline with an east aspect, and the snowpack was highly variable. The party had noticed some cracking and one whumpf on the ascent.

The fifth incident was in Rocky Mountain National Park on Sunday the 25th. The slide was skier triggered on a northerly aspect starting at around 12,200 feet on Flattop Mountain on a run known locally as the Hourglass. The slide was triggered by the second skier. Initially the crown was 4 inches deep but stepped down another foot. Initially the shallow crown was about 100 feet wide but propagated to about 150 yards wide. The skier suffered a few bumps and bruises and some lost gear. Of note with this slide there was no old summer snow field at the bed surface.

The sixth incident also occurred on Sunday the 25th. A skier triggered a soft slab on a hard ice crust or possible summer snow field on an east aspect near 12,000 feet on Loveland Pass. The crown broke about 40 feet above the skier. The crown was about 20 feet below a corniced ridge, about 40 feet wide and 20 inches deep on a slope estimated between 35 and 40 degrees. There was very little debris, not enough to get buried by the slide after the skier rode and tumbled about 150 vertical feet.

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