Historic, unsurvivable avalanches forecast in central mountains; Steamboat danger remains high
March 7, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The avalanche danger forecast map was blinking an ominous red and black Thursday on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website.
Danger in the Steamboat Springs and Flat Tops Wilderness Area zone was rated high (4 out of 5) along with the Front Range, Grand Mesa and San Juan mountains.
The danger is even higher in the central mountains, where it was rated extreme (5 out of 5) in four zones — including Vail, Summit and Aspen — for the first time since the Avalanche Information Center began the 10-zone forecast in 2006.
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The avalanche danger increased dramatically overnight after wet, heavy snow and a high rain line weakened snowpacks across the state.
“Rain on snow is never a good situation, and that saturation can really destabilize the snowpack really rapidly,” Avalanche Information Center forecaster Kreston Rohrig said.
According to the forecast, very large to historic avalanches are certain in the zones where extreme danger exists. Here in Steamboat, large avalanches are very likely. The danger exists on all aspects and elevations.
“There is potential for avalanches to run to valley floors and exceed historic extents,” according to the forecast. “You are unlikely to survive a brush with one of these avalanches.”
These types of “historic” avalanches — natural and controlled — have closed Interstate 70 and Berthoud Pass multiple times this week. I-70 was closed Thursday morning between Frisco and Copper Mountain after a slide broke a natural gas line in the area. It closed again between Vail and Empire later in the day.
“In a lot of cases, we’re seeing in bigger slide paths that they’re ripping to the ground, taking out the entire season’s snowpack,” Rohrig said, adding that the avalanches are even taking out mature trees, meaning they’re exceeding historic slide paths.
The danger this season is mostly due to large storms where snowfall is measured in feet.
“We’ve just had a lot of snowfall,” Rohrig said. “In the Steamboat area, it’s come in these really juicy storms where we get a foot, 2 feet, 3 feet in a storm. It’s plenty of snow, if you triggered an avalanche, to be concerning and to be enough volume to bury a person.”
The avalanche danger is expected to subside slightly Friday, when the central mountains are forecast to have high danger. The Steamboat zone is expected to see considerable danger Friday.
With forecast highs in the upper 30s on Thursday and Friday, wet snow and rain is expected to continue falling over the Steamboat area before the storm system moves out Saturday morning.