New snow increases the risk of avalanches in Routt County backcountry
January 6, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It's avalanche season in the Rocky Mountains.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center is forecasting a considerable risk of avalanches at all elevations and all slope aspects Monday due to new snowfall forming a storm slab on top of weaker layers of snow.
At a glance
In addition to backcountry supplies such as food, water, fire starter and extra clothing, the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education recommends you carry the following if you’re headed into the mountains in winter conditions.
- Avalanche Transceiver – to locate burial site
- Probe – to pinpoint the victim
- Shovel – to extract the victim
- Avalanche Balloon System
- Emergency Communication Device – to call for help
- First aid kit, warm jacket and tarp or pad to reduce the onset of hypothermia until help arrives.
Before you go, check conditions online at avalanche.state.co.us.
Avalanches occur when a layer of new, weakly bonded snowflakes slip off of a layer of old, well-bonded snow, explained J.C. Norling, who leads the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education courses at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs.
"The snowpack is really a story of seasonal snowfall and bonding of the old snow surface with new snow," Norling said. "You really need three things (for an avalanche to occur). You need a trigger. You need avalanche terrain and you need unstable snow."
Norling said, even when avalanche forecasters at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center say the risk of avalanches is low, those heading into the backcountry should consider the specific problems that could be present in the area they plan to ski, ride or hike in. Persistent slabs of old, weak snow are common in the state.
Three of the five fatal avalanches recorded in Northwest Colorado were caused by a persistent slab, according to the Avalanche Information Center. The remaining two were caused by storm slab avalanches.
More avalanche deaths occur in Colorado than any other state, according to data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Among these deaths, most avalanche victims were backcountry skiers and riders, followed by snowmobilers.
Norling said being prepared by completing avalanche-training courses, thoroughly planning your trip and preparing your gear can help those headed into the backcountry remain safe in the snow.
Avalanche Information Center forecasts cover a broad area, he said, so you should consider the terrain you plan to visit. He recommends checking the forecast, then using a mapping platform to consider the area that you plan to start in, the shape and angle of the slope and where terrain traps such as streams, cliffs and bowls.
"You look at all that together and maybe you can rule out certain kind of terrain before you even leave your kitchen or the vehicle," Norling said.
Courses can teach you how to identify avalanche problems by reading the snowpack and the terrain. Once you have the training, Norling recommends practicing those skills, so you remember what to do if you run into trouble.
"To get the experience, you've got to go out there," he said. "But it's really good to get some basic training."
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center is collaborating with local organizations to offer a free avalanche clinic to the public from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11 at Colorado Mountain College's Albright Auditorium. On Saturday, Jan. 10, the center will also present a one-day field session on Rabbit Ears Pass. The $45 fee for the field session benefits the Center. Those interested in the field session can sign up at Ski Haus.
A full list of American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education certified courses is available online at aiare.info/course_list.php. Upcoming courses in Steamboat will be offered by Colorado Mountain College and the Never Summer Outdoor School.
While ski patrollers, highway workers and avalanche forecasters go looking for these avalanche problems, you should stay away.
"They want to find the problem and mitigate it," said Norling. "But as a backcountry rider, you want to avoid the problem. Sometimes it’s wiser just to wait to get the bigger lines in the spring when the snowpack heals up. People die in bigger terrain because they just watch it on the movies and think they're going to get it."