Outdoors

One Week, 185 Avalanches: How to Stay Safe in Colorado's High Country

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center caption on this photo from the scene of a November 28 slide reads: "The upper portions of debris field. Skier 1 triggered the avalanche as he approached the rock band on the far side of the avalanche."
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center caption on this photo from the scene of a November 28 slide reads: "The upper portions of debris field. Skier 1 triggered the avalanche as he approached the rock band on the far side of the avalanche." avalanche.state.co.us
Editor's note: On December 8, three days after the publication of the story below, the Larimer County Sheriff's Office revealed that a 29-year-old woman from Fort Collins died after being caught in an avalanche near Cameron Pass on Highway 13. The victim, who hasn't been identified, is the first avalanche fatality of the 2019-2020 season.

On November 28, according to an account from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a family of three — parents in their forties and a teenager — arrived at Janet's Cabin, a 10th Mountain Division hut near the Copper Mountain ski resort. Shortly thereafter, they headed out to find an area for backcountry skiing and soon settled on a spot that looked promising. But as the first member of the group was checking snow conditions, he saw the slope fracture about thirty feet above him.

"Slide!" he yelled.

An instant later, an avalanche roared toward him. He punched his arm into the air so that his companions could see him, and that was a good strategy, since the snow and debris reached up to his elbow, leaving the rest of his body buried. Snow was packed around his throat, but he was able to use his free hand to relieve enough of the pressure to breathe. The rest of his body felt as if it had been stuck in concrete, he remembered.


The other two skiers managed to dig out their companion, and the trio made it back to the hut without assistance from rescue crews. Still, their experience indicates that early-season avalanche dangers of the sort that struck Colorado's high country last year are back with a vengeance. Indeed, Brian Lazar, the CAIC's deputy director, notes that from November 25 through December 2, the agency recorded a worrisome 185 avalanches, 75 of which were large enough to bury a person.

click to enlarge The areas in yellow on the map are rated as moderate, defined as: "Heightened avalanche conditions on specific terrain features. Evaluate snow and terrain carefully." - CAIC
The areas in yellow on the map are rated as moderate, defined as: "Heightened avalanche conditions on specific terrain features. Evaluate snow and terrain carefully."
Moreover, Lazar expects avalanche activity to increase with a storm system expected to hit the high country today.

"It isn't a super-potent storm, but we will see some healthy snowfalls," Lazar predicts. "It should favor the San Juans, the Grand Mesa and the West Elk Mountains — and we could be looking at ten inches of storm snow as we get into late afternoon and evening on Thursday."

That could make an unexpectedly risky situation even worse.

"There's fairly thin snow cover on the ground in a lot of places," Lazar notes, "so most of the avalanches have been on the small side. But over the last week, we've had several people who were caught, carried and partially buried in that time frame." In addition to skiers, he points out that "there was at least one snowmobiler who triggered a fairly sizable avalanche."

The reasons for such scenarios have everything to do with the waves of storms that started visiting the state even before winter has officially begun.

"Avalanche conditions are dependent on how the snowpack itself builds up through the course of the season," Lazar explains. "We had an early October snowfall, and where it lasted on higher elevations on north- and east-facing slopes, it turned into a very weak layer of snow. That's a poor foundation on which to build the rest of the season's snowpack. So when we had more storms deposit a lot of snow on top of that weak foundation, we saw all this avalanche activity."

This situation isn't expected to improve anytime soon. "When we see future loading events and bigger storms, we'll see avalanche danger increase coincident with these storm impacts," he says.

Lazar doesn't want lovers of the great outdoors to interpret his alerts as a warning to stay indoors, however.

click to enlarge The Colorado Avalanche Information Center caption on this photo-illustration depicting the November 28 slide reads: "Skier 1 was near the upper red dot when the avalanche released, and was buried near the lower dot. Skiers 2 and 3 were climbing on foot through the wind-blown scree on the right of the photo. Image and annotations provided by the party." - AVALANCHE.STATE.CO.US
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center caption on this photo-illustration depicting the November 28 slide reads: "Skier 1 was near the upper red dot when the avalanche released, and was buried near the lower dot. Skiers 2 and 3 were climbing on foot through the wind-blown scree on the right of the photo. Image and annotations provided by the party."
"We have a lot of amazing mountain terrain in Colorado, and current conditions are by no means a barrier to recreating safely in the backcountry," he stresses. "You just need to do so with conservative travel decisions in mind. Find where the dangerous slopes are and how to avoid them."

Lazar advises folks eager to hit the hills to "first make sure you're up to speed on current conditions. Start by getting the avalanche forecast where you're going" either on the CAIC website or the center's free phone app. "That will give you a good description of the current avalanche danger level and tell you where you're likely to get into trouble, and where you can find safer terrain to reduce your risk."

He also emphasizes that skiers, hikers and other outdoors lovers need to "make sure you're carrying the appropriate minimum rescue gear: an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and an avalanche probe. And you need to not only have the gear: You need to practice with it, get some training that will initiate the practice process and also show you how to use the equipment and make wise decisions in the backcountry."

And remember: "If you're the one buried, it's always safer to be traveling with a partner who can facilitate a rescue."

So you can live to love Colorado another day.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts