Avalanche path spied north of Steamboat Lake
Backcountry safety relies on planning
December 28, 2017
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The touchy snowpack in the backcountry surrounding Steamboat Springs was confirmed this week by two different Routt County men who filed reports with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center — one after sighting an avalanche path that broke loose west of Hahn's Peak Lake.
Alex Pashley described the avalanche he could see on a mountain in North Routt known as the Gem, about 30 miles northwest of Steamboat, in a written report to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center on Dec. 26.
He wrote, "The crown looked to be about 25cm (10 inches), which slid and then stepped down to (a) denser 10-15cm (of snow) just above the ground. Slide was close to 100m in width (and slid an estimated 150 to 200 meters) with the toe of the slide coming to a rest on a bench just above some trees."
A second report was filed on the conditions at the Dry Lake Trailhead, closer to Steamboat, by a skier who said any attempts to break a trail through untracked snow resulted in the telltale "whoomphing" sound indicative of unstable layers settling beneath the surface.
Jason Konigsberg of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center wrote in his morning report Thursday that dangerous avalanche conditions exist in the Steamboat and Flat Tops zone.
"Recent avalanche activity reported from North Routt County and the Buffalo Pass area and additional reports of collapsing and long-shooting cracks is all the evidence we need to know that our snowpack is unstable," Konigsberg wrote. "Conditions are prime for hazardous and potentially deadly human-triggered avalanches.
Skier John Morrone reported to the avalanche center that he set out on skis Dec. 26 from the Soda Creek Trailhead at an elevation of 8,400 feet at the base of Buffalo Pass and encountered difficult travel except on previously skied routes – his skis sank to a depth of 60 centimeters (23.6 inches) when he attempted to break his own trail.
Morrone wrote in his citizen-skier report that he encountered a "hypersensitive, failing (melt-freeze) crust" near the base of the snowpack that was 80 to 90 centimeters of fresh snow. The term “melt-freeze crust” refers to an older layer of snow beneath the surface that can lead to an avalanche when a fresh blanket of snow fails to bond with the surface of the crust.
"Trail breaking resulted in inconsistent support on MF (melt-freeze) crust with constant whoomphing and tree branch shaking up to 10 meters distance," Morrone wrote.
Pashley drove his snowmobile into the area of the Gem before switching to skis to tour the final distance. He dug a snow pit and detected "sugary facets" on top of a denser snow layer on the ground."
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Pashley concluded the avalanche had occurred a couple of days earlier.
"There were two tracks that were above the crown, but I know the two guys that were out there on the 24th and nothing happened while they were there," he wrote. "My guess is that this (avalanche slid) naturally late on the 24th or early on the 25th, as the tracks were almost totally filled in."
Konigsberg urged people who plan to travel in the backcountry to take precautions.
"If you are traveling in the backcountry today (Thursday), you should choose your route carefully," he advised. "Your route should steer you clear of any avalanche-path run-out zone and should keep you off of any slope steeper than 30 degrees, especially those that are wind loaded and easterly facing."