Report the whumpf: State of the Snowpack stresses preparation, safety, observations

Brian Gardel, a guide and avalanche professional with Steamboat Powdercats, measures 118 inches of snow in a pit dug Jan. 13, 2023, at Soda Mountain, northeast of Dry Lake in the Buffalo Pass area.
Kent Vertrees, Steamboat Powdercats/Courtesy photo

“No friends on a powder day is BS,” Kent Vertrees told the crowd at the close of the State of the Snowpack event Saturday evening, Jan. 28, at Bud Werner Memorial Library.

The master of ceremonies at the educational, fundraiser and memorial event did not use the acronym BS during the sometimes-emotional evening. Vertrees, the master of chaos at Steamboat Powdercats, reiterated this week in a family friendlier version, “There are many friends on a powder day.”

“This is an amazing season for so many reasons. Mother Nature has treated us well. The snowpack is pretty well set up for us, but now with the storm snow, avalanche danger is high,” Vertrees said Monday, Jan. 30.

The State of the Snowpack event, well attended by a fit and friendly crowd of backcountry enthusiasts, focused on safety, ranging from planning and preparing wisely, to the responsibility of the strongest skier in the crew skiing sweep or trailing behind. The evening was hosted by the Drew Hyde Memorial Fund as “an event promoting snow safety, backcountry preparedness and the human factor in Northwest Colorado.”

Throughout the event, speakers led several group toasts with locally brewed beer for the honoree Drew Hyde, a Steamboat Springs resident and avid adventurer who died at age 49 in a March 2022 avalanche while backcountry skiing in the North Fork of Fish Creek drainage.

The presenters advised snow recreationists to practice with avalanche gear and to read and understand the forecast in the specific area where the crew is headed.

Jason Konigsberg, a forecaster for eight winters at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, stressed submitting observations seen in the field. The recently updated avalanche center website, includes an easy “Submit Field Report” link at the top of the home page. Konigsberg emphasized that a report from citizen recreationists does not have to be highly scientific or even reveal the exact location of a crew’s secret sweet spot.

Backcountry recreationists have been doing a great job this winter of reporting snowpack and avalanche conditions in the Park Range and Flat Tops, The submitted observations are used by Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters to help create more accurate avalanche forecasts.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center/Courtesy image

Konigsberg said backcountry recreationists have been doing a great job this winter of reporting snowpack and avalanche conditions in the Park Range and Flat Tops including 88 submitted observations from Nov. 1 through Jan. 28. Avalanche center staff use that information to help create accurate avalanche forecasts. Anyone recreating in the backcountry can submit an observation using the website or the center’s mobile app.

“Reporting avalanches is the most important along with the location, slope aspect and elevation,” Konigsberg said. “Also important is reporting other obvious signs of unstable snow such as shooting cracks and sounds of the snowpack collapsing, known as whumpfs.”

Other useful information to report, if available, includes the total depth of snowpack, how much new snow has fallen and where the wind is drifting snow, Konigsberg said.

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“Because the more observations we have, the better we are all at knowing what is going on with the snowpack,” Vertrees said.

During the State of the Snowpack, presenters said understanding the forecast for specific snow adventure areas does take a bit of study and practice. One way that recreationists can practice is to utilize the Routt County Search and Rescue’s Beacon Training Park located near the base of the Barrows chairlift at Howelsen Hill. Six waterproof transmit boxes are buried throughout the area and can be activated via a control panel attached at the beacon basin sign. The signage includes general avalanche information, details on search techniques and links to online training resources.

With the abundant snowfall so far this winter as recorded at the Tower SNOTEL site near Buffalo Pass, the snow water equivalent is currently 139% of the 30-year median. The black line with the red circle shows the snow water equivalent as of Jan. 23.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center/Courtesy image

Matt Jost, assistant dean of instruction at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat, encouraged people to sign up for avalanche and snow safety classes at CMC. The classes are popular and fill quickly, so Jost also suggested learning through a variety of organizations with online education.

Vertrees recommends educational videos on the Avalanche Research + Education website, with such topics as “essential rescue equipment,” “departure check,” “am I in avalanche terrain,” “where is the unstable snow,” “choose terrain to reduce your risk” and “basic avalanche awareness.”

Jay Bowman, Routt County Search and Rescue board president, outlined key backcountry safety tips including to let someone know where the group is going and expected to be back. Pack the 10 essentials, listed on the Search and Rescue website, including gear for navigation, sun protection, insulation, illumination, first aid, fire, tools, nutrition, hydration and shelter. If in trouble, call 911, then stay put and wait for rescue. Call sooner rather than later; don’t wait until after dark. Conserve phone battery or utilize a backup charger or SOS device.

“Most of our calls come in as darkness is falling. But if you are having problems, call us earlier,” Bowman said.

Vertrees said the growth of new people using the backcountry in winter is obvious with busier parking lots and increased sales of snowmobiles and backcountry ski gear.

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