Half-mile avalanche shaves snow from Bald Mountain
Avalanche season isn’t over yet.
A pair of skiers triggered a domino-effect of an avalanche Tuesday at Bald Mountain east of Breckenridge, estimated at half a mile wide and up to 10 feet deep, according to Colorado Avalanche Information Center officials.
An avalanche in wind-tossed snow unsettled two lower layers of snow, one after the other, resulting in a major avalanche. No one was caught or hurt by it.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s report, the first skier triggered a 50-foot-wide windslab. The skier escaped to a predetermined safe zone. The windslab, in turn, triggered another slab 3 to 4 feet deep below.
When those slabs neared the bottom of the chute, the entire left side of the chute broke, sending a third slab of snow sliding to the bottom.
The two skiers estimated the fallen slabs to be as tall as 10 feet in some spots based on the crown left behind, which spanned nearly a half-mile.
The run was the skiers’ second of the day on Bald Mountain. They previously skied a more easterly face.
“We very much underestimated the potential for deep slab avalanches today,” the skiers wrote in the Colorado Avalanche Information Center report. “Our biggest takeaway was that this snowpack is nowhere near stable in a lot more places than one might expect.”
Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Ethan Greene called the event “uncommon.”
The two lower layers of snowpack had been mostly stable, Greene said. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center saw little activity in them across the region and considered them dormant, making the avalanche somewhat unusual.
Anna DeBattiste of Summit County Rescue Group said the two skiers reported the avalanche immediately after it was triggered, providing some colorful words in their description.
Expletives aside, DeBattiste they want to encourage people to make reports of any avalanches they witness because it can relieve response teams, many of which are all-volunteer groups.
Storms last weekend dropped over a foot of snow in the Breckenridge area. High winds moving south and west carried snow up and over ridges and deposited snow on north-, northeast- and east-facing slopes according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center report.
Such winds will scour ridges, create cornices and deposit pillows of snow along slopes. Greene and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center encourage backcountry travelers to avoid wind loaded features like cornices and pillows.
Likewise, Greene encourages anyone heading into avalanche territory to do so early in the day this time of year.
“The adage is: start early, end early,” he said.
With spring’s warm days and cold nights, it’s safest to venture out in the morning. Snow will soften as the sun and temperatures rise, and avalanche risk will increase as the day progresses. That soft snow will freeze again during the night, gluing the snowpack together and tending to remain firm through the morning, officials said.
While Summit County’s avalanche risk was assessed as low, as Friday evening, officials say this does not mean avalanches are impossible. The local forecast says the highest risk of avalanches will be on northeast-, north- and northwest-facing slopes, near and above treeline.
A storm is expected to impact the Rocky Mountains this weekend and deposit up to 8 inches at high elevations. Strong northwesterly winds are expected to accompany the snow, drifting into slabs that could crack and break beneath or above skiers, the avalanche center reports.
Any avalanches that do occur are forecasted to be “large” to “very large,” according to avalanche officials, much like the Bald Mountain slide this week.
In the 2021-22 season so far, Colorado Avalanche Information Center has reported almost 5,000 avalanches. Greene considered that normal, although he clarified not all avalanches are reported.
Deaths are the only exact count the center records. There have been six deaths from avalanches this season, down from last year’s 12. The 10-year Colorado average is six per season.
Witnesses can report an avalanche by calling non-emergency dispatch at 970-668-8600.
Backcountry travelers can check the Colorado avalanche forecast online at Avalanche.state.co.us/forecasts.
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