By Sheridan Block
Backcountry adventurers across the state are encouraged to take caution when exploring the wilderness during this particularly active avalanche season.
Last Wednesday, Feb. 12, Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center released a statement urging Coloradans to heed warnings of high avalanche danger in many parts of the backcountry.
“We understand Coloradans’ love for the outdoors in all seasons. We want to encourage backcountry travelers to pay close attention to warnings from the Avalanche Information Center,” said Hickenlooper. “Conditions in the backcountry this winter are dangerous and exercising common sense caution can prevent tragedy.”
So far this season, six deaths have resulted from avalanches, already more than half of all deaths reported last season by the CAIC. Fortunately, none of the fatalities have occurred in the San Juans, though there has been one close call, said CAIC Avalanche Forecaster Ann Mellick.
According to Mellick, who is a forecaster for the areas specifically near US 550 and Highway 145, the season’s avalanche cycle has been larger in terms of propagation in comparison to recent years. While this season has been particularly active, especially during the month of February, she said that it is not unprecedented.
Avalanche dangers ebb and flow throughout the season, and each year there are periods of high and low hazards. The Northern San Juans, including Ouray County, are at an elevated risk of avalanche activity due to recent shifts in temperature. Mellick reported that the long dry spell in January followed by two weeks of heavy snowfall earlier this month created ideal conditions for an avalanche to occur.
Avalanches are caused by fractures in a weaker, loose layer of snow buried beneath additional layers and slabs of snow. Snowpack layers are formed by precipitation, varying temperatures and wind activity throughout the winter. Weaker layers of snowpack fracture when additional weight has been added too quickly, overloading the buried layer of snow and causing an avalanche.
The latest advisory from CAIC calls for “cautious route-finding and conservative decision making,” cautioning backcountry users to avoid “travel in or below avalanche terrain.”
“Several very large avalanches have been triggered by backcountry travelers and explosives,” the advisory states. “Veteran snow professionals are reporting triggered avalanches in well documented avalanche paths that are breaking mature timber and behaving in surprising ways.”
Mellick explained that CAIC and the Colorado Department of Transportation are responsible for avalanche mitigation using explosives. Typical methods of mitigation include the use of an Avalauncher gun, dropping explosives into snowpacks from helicopters and planting explosives into snowpacks by hand. All these methods are used in an average year and each has been employed by CAIC and CDOT over the last few weeks in Ouray County, said Mellick.
Despite the activity this season, Coloradans are still headed to the backcountry for winter recreation. However, it’s important for outfitters to recognize the dangers and remember to stay safe when in avalanche terrain.
Matt Wade, owner and avalanche course instructor at Peak Mountain Guides in Ouray, said to stick to low angle terrain, or slopes with less than 30 degrees in steepness. The window for the most avalanche activity, he added, is in slopes between 30 and 45 degrees.
“If somebody hasn’t learned how to evaluate the potential for avalanches to release then they really need to stay out of avalanche terrain altogether,” he said.
Additionally, Wade encouraged people to take a Level 1 avalanche course, which teaches outfitters how to recognize dangerous conditions in the backcountry, how to interpret avalanche bulletins and evaluate snowpacks in the field and how to find safer terrain.
According to Wade, more and more people are taking the course now than ever before, as backcountry skiing and snowboarding are growing in popularity and with that the awareness of the importance of avalanche education. While training isn’t required to participate in outdoor winter activities, he said that those involved usually aren’t properly educated about avalanches.
While the backcountry remains dangerous, hazards along US 550 have been mitigated, said Mellick. Drivers should still pay attention to where they are and should avoid stopping under avalanche passes for any reason. Likewise, she encouraged recreational travelers to stay updated with the CAIC website and bulletins for additional warnings or dangers.
“We want people to enjoy the spectacular recreation Colorado offers, but we also want people to pay close attention to conditions,” said Hickenlooper. “Another day or another route might be a better option.”
To check for avalanche conditions and hazards visit http://avalanche.state.co.us.