Most lovers of the outdoors in Colorado aren't thinking about avalanches yet, even though mountain snowfall has been substantial in recent days and several ski areas have opened earlier than usual. But slides are already a danger, as one person recently discovered.
On October 15, according to an account shared by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), a hiker climbed up Arapaho Pass and Arapaho Glacier Trails, north of Nederland, to an elevation of about 11,500 feet before the depth of the snow persuaded him to descend. Shortly thereafter, he ventured onto what he thought was hard-packed snow and wound up stepping right through it, or "post-holing," in winter-hiking parlance.
Suddenly, an avalanche fractured above him and to the east, sweeping him over cliffs ten to fifteen feet high. He estimates that he was carried about 150 vertical feet by the slide, suffering cuts, bruises and a fractured pelvis in the process.
In his words, "Avy season hit me by surprise."
Brian Lazar, the center's deputy director, was considerably less confounded by this event. "Any time you've got snow obscuring the ground cover on slopes steeper than 30 degrees, you need to start thinking about avalanches," he says. "It can happen as early as September, and by October, it's common for us to see the avalanche activity ramp up with early-season snowfall — and this year has been no exception."
True enough: On November 2, a skier was partially buried by an avalanche on Hoosier pass, just above the Northstar neighborhood. Fortunately, he wasn't seriously injured.
Below, Lazar shares ten observations and tips about early-season avalanches, with the goal of preventing more folks enjoying the majesty of Colorado at this time of year from being caught off-guard.
Number 1: Looks Can Be Deceiving
"We don't have to have a huge snowfall for us to be at risk of avalanches. On smooth, grassy slopes or rocky slabs, it doesn't take that much snow cover to obscure the ground. And avalanches at this time of year can be a very painful ride.
"If you get caught in a small slide mid-winter and don't hit any obstacles, you might get lucky and walk away with no injuries. But when you don't have a lot of snow obscuring obstacles on the ground, the ride can be much worse, because you're being dragged across rocks and tree stumps and things like that."
Number 2: Know What's Happening Where You're Heading
"We're always updating and putting out avalanche warnings during this season, just like we do for most of the year. And we also always update weather forecasts for areas across the state, including what it's going to be like at 11,000 feet or higher. You should be sure to check the forecast and be aware any time you have snow-covered slopes at more than 30 degrees. That's about the equivalent of a blue run at a ski area."
Number 3: Sound Affects
"One of the common red-flag warning signs that you can apply early as well as later in the winter is when you're hiking and you hear audible, collapsing sounds in the snow. It sounds like a whumpf, and you'll almost feel the snow collapse under your feet. That sound lets you know that the snow pack is conducive to starting avalanches."
Number 4: Crack Kills
"Other warning signs are shooting cracks in the surface of the snow: When you step on the snow, cracks will shoot out from where you stand. That's an obvious sign of instability."
Here's a CAIC video from Loveland Pass from November 1 showing the phenomenon.
Number 5: Meadow Larking
"When you're in avalanche terrain, avoid traveling on or underneath slopes that are covered with snow and steeper than 30 degrees. Just try to make sure you don't have steeper terrain above you.
"You can still trigger avalanches from below, but if you're in a relatively flat, gentle slope, like a big, open meadow with no steep, overlying terrain, you're generally safe."
Number 6: Things Change Quickly
"Right now, you could have a very pleasant day in the mountains — in the fifties or sixties. But if a storm rolls in, nighttime temperatures can drop into the twenties and thirties. And being caught overnight can be just as deadly now as it is later in the season if you're completely unprepared."
Number 7: Gearing Up
"If you're considering going into avalanche terrain, you need to carry the basic rescue equipment: an avalanche transceiver [which helps rescuers locate someone buried in snow], a probe and a shovel. A transceiver is important at this time of year, too, because you can certainly be buried in even a small avalanche if you find the wrong piece of terrain — terrain traps and gully features that can pile up even when an avalanche isn't that big. And you should also travel with a competent companion — someone who's capable of digging you out and helping you if you get into trouble.
"Other stuff you'd want would include adequate food, water and clothing, accounting for an unexpected or prolonged stay outside — what you'd want if you get hurt unexpectedly and had to spend the night out there. It's better to take it and not use it than get caught out at night and not have it."
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Number 8: Cell Out
"We've got large stretches of terrain in Colorado where there's no cell-phone coverage. So you may want to invest in a satellite location device [also referred to as personal locator beacons or satellite messengers]. They can be an effective way of communicating with people in an emergency, because you can't always rely on your cell phone."
Number 9: Plan for the Worst
"You need to think about how to extricate yourself if there's an avalanche. If you're not buried and not badly injured, you can walk yourself out and consider yourself lucky. But if you are injured, it may require first aid — so wilderness medical training is helpful. The consequences can be greater if you're by yourself, there's no cell coverage and you break a femur. That's one reason we've got a whole list of programs and education resources on our website."
Number 10: The Bottom Line
"Don't just go out at this time of year thinking an avalanche can't happen — because they can."