An area in Routt County is more at risk for avalanche than most of the state right now

With a storm in the forecast, avalanche risk could rise

After some big storms early in November, conditions have dried out around Steamboat Springs, but a storm is forecasted to bring at least a few inches of snow this week. If that happens, it could elevate the risk of avalanche.

“The surfaces are all weakening, which right now means that they‘re getting softer, but when storms begin to move in again, that‘ll be quite a dangerous layer,” said Rebecca Hodgetts, a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

She explained that this pattern — a continental snowpack climate that sees long dry periods between storms — is normal in Colorado.

During those gaps between storms, she said, it’s common for the top layer of snow to soften, and as fresh slabs of snow accumulate on top, weak layers form underneath and the avalanche risk goes up depending on the ability of the two layers to bond with one another. 

She said faceted snow, which she described as angular snow crystals created by changes in temperate that don’t bond as well to other snow layers, has been observed all over Colorado, creating weak layers after a slab of snow settles on top. 

“With this new snow load, we have kind of a potpourri of weak layers to worry about,” Hodgetts said.

She explained that because more snow has fallen along the Park Range in Northwest Colorado, these layers are thicker and less stable than other areas in the state. 

Cold temperatures help slabs degrade into loose, unconsolidated snow. However, thicker layers degrade slower because snow insulates. Because of this pattern, the Park Range areas north of Steamboat have an elevated avalanche risk compared to much of the state, as the slabs aren’t expected to have degraded as much as the areas to the south. 

The Park Range in north Routt County has one of the higher avalanche risks across the state as of Friday, Nov. 25, 2022.
Screenshot/Colorado Avalanche Information Center

According to the CAIC, there is moderate avalanche risk for the Park Range, starting at Buffalo Pass to the Wyoming border. Moderate is considered a risk level of two out of five and was observed near and above the tree line on the north, northeastern and eastern aspects of mountains in the region north of Buffalo Pass. 

While the CAIC says there’s low risk of avalanches south of Buffalo Pass, the center urges people to be cautious on steep, northerly facing terrain in areas such as Rabbit Ears Pass.

Steep terrain with more than six inches of loose snow can result in small sluffs that can knock people down and drag them through rough, exposed terrain, the CAIC warns.

According to Hodgetts, areas near Steamboat have seen more early season snow than the previous two La Nina years, and the region is slightly above average overall, while much of the southern regions of Colorado are seeing slightly below-average snowfall. 

So far this season, there have been 129 avalanches in Colorado, mostly in the Front Range and North San Juan areas. Last year, there were 107 avalanches through the same time period, but the CAIC estimates that only about 10% of all avalanches are reported. 

The CAIC stresses that those in the backcountry should always travel with a partner and carry the appropriate gear such as an avalanche transceiver, a snow probe and a snow shovel. The center also recommends people avoid slopes with signs of recent wind-drifting, saying these areas typically have a smooth, lens-shaped surface that can feel hollow when stepped upon or make cracking sounds.

There hasn‘t been any avalanches reported in Routt County so far this season.

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