Deadly Avalanches Predicted for the High Country

Deadly Avalanches Predicted for the High Country
Flashing red warnings pulsed today, February 7, on the online map that shows Colorado’s avalanche risks — and the danger lurks not only at or near timberline, but well into the trees, where travelers may be less aware of the hazards. The slides could occur on their own, without even the weight of a human or a wild animal needed to trigger them.

“Expect widespread natural avalanche activity to continue today, with most avalanches large enough to bury or kill a person. Travel in, under, or near backcountry avalanche terrain is not recommended,” said the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), a state agency that monitors snow-slide hazard for the backcountry as well as major roadways.

“We’re experiencing widespread activity, with avalanches that are very easy to trigger,” says Brian Lazar, an expert forecaster with CAIC. “These slides that are big enough to bury and kill a person.”

Even moderate to low hills may remain hazardous through Saturday night, so backcountry travelers should delay their adventures until the danger lessens, or at least ski or snowboard in-bounds at resorts. Even sticking to flat terrain doesn’t necessarily guaranty safety; in past years, avalanches that started hundreds of feet higher barreled down through the trees and trapped people who were recreating far below, on flatter terrain.

“This weekend just isn’t the time to go out into the backcountry,” Lazar says. “They’ll be plenty of other times, when the risks are lower, to go out and enjoy yourselves.”

This weekend’s high-risk forecast covers the entire Front Range, from Larimer County (including Rocky Mountain National Park), through the mountains just west of metro Denver (i.e., anything near Georgetown and Loveland Pass) and south to Pikes Peak. The warnings also include Summit and Eagle counties (such as Silverthorne, Dillon, Breckenridge, Blue River and the Vail-Avon area), Steamboat Springs and the Flattop Mountains, Pitkin County (Aspen, Snowmass and nearby areas), the Gunnison area, and the Sawatch Range, including the Leadville, Buena Vista and Salida areas.

A “considerable risk” warning — meaning that backcountry travelers still should exercise caution and carefully evaluate terrain for potential snow slides — blankets other parts of Colorado’s high country, including the Northern San Juan Mountains and the Grand Mesa near Grand Junction. Lower risks exist in the Southern San Juan Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Range, but slides are still possible.

Lazar suggests that potential backcountry travelers check CAIC’s website during the week, including the specific maps and forecasts for the areas where they plan to ski, snowboard, snowshoe or climb.

How does this weekend compare to last year’s monster slides? The avalanches already seen today and predicted through Saturday night aren’t as wide or as deep as the historic March 2019 beasts that destroyed houses and other structures and obliterated scores of acres of old-growth forests in a single slide. Those catastrophic avalanches rated five out of five on both the danger and size scales that snow scientists use to compare such events.

Still, this weekend’s avalanche forecast predicts slides that rank four out of five on the same hazard scales.

“Avalanches can be quite violent events even if they’re not something like you’d see on the Discovery Channel,” Lazar says, adding that people have perished in moderate-sized slides, too. “About a quarter of the deaths [among people] die from trauma on the way down,” because avalanches also can carry boulders, broken trees and other debris.

Once the slide stops, the snow refreezes and hardens quickly, making it nearly impossible for trapped victims to dig their way out — and making it imperative for the victims’ companions to know how to find their partners and how to mount an immediate, effective rescue.

Lazar adds that he doesn’t want to scare people from ever enjoying the backcountry: “Just don’t go out there this weekend.”
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