Small avalanches observed in mountains near Steamboat |

Small avalanches observed in mountains near Steamboat

A party of skiers that exited the Steamboat Ski Area boundary for Fish Creek Canyon posted this image April 6 of a sharp avalanche fracture.
Photo courtesy of Kelly Northcutt

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The more-than 2 feet of wet, heavy snow that fell in the mountains around Steamboat Springs April 6 to 9 left a tender snowpack that was prone to sliding.

As of Monday morning, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center had posted three reports of avalanches close to Steamboat Springs, including two from citizen observers who exited the boundaries of Steamboat Ski Area. The third came from the avalanche center’s own forecaster Jason Konigsberg, who set out April 6 to assess conditions on Baker Mountain on the east side of Rabbit Ears Pass.

Konigsberg climbed from 8,600 feet to 9,800 feet elevation where he found 6 inches of dense snow sitting on top of a slick crust, where he intentionally triggered “loose, wet” avalanches.

“The new snow is bonded poorly to this crust, and I was able to trigger avalanches in terrain over 35 degrees with small pushes of the new snow,” he wrote after his April 6 outing. “Avalanche(s) would pick up speed and entrain all the new snow while running down low-30-degree slopes.”

Two days later, a member of Mountain Rescue Aspen died after he was caught in an avalanche in the great expanse of steep terrain in Maroon Bowl outside the boundary of Aspen Highlands, 150 miles south of Steamboat.

Nick Barlow, Konigsberg’s colleague at the Avalanche information Center, warned backcountry travelers that any observation of the snowpack  “cracking, whether from ski or snowmobiles is a warning sign.” He rated the avalanche danger in the Steamboat/Flat Tops zone as considerable, indicating “dangerous avalanche conditions.” He anticipated lowering that danger rating to “moderate” Tuesday.

“You can trigger a large avalanche in the recent storm snow on any slope steeper than around 30 degrees today,” Barlow wrote Monday. “Due to the nature of the recent storm snow, these avalanches will carry significant mass and destructive potential. Escape from even a small avalanche may prove impossible.”

Two skiers, in different parties, who entered the “side country” above Fish Creek Canyon by leaving the ski area through designated control gates, also filed reports of avalanche paths during the multi-day storm.

On Sunday, a public observer who did not provide their name filed a report that described leaving the ski area for the backcountry through gate two to descend an “east-northerly facing aspect.” At the time, that skier was experiencing warming temperatures, blowing snow and strong winds at an elevation of about 9,500 feet.

Based on a photograph of a slide path with a pair of ski tips visible in the lower left corner, the skier may have triggered the slide.

The skier, using vocabulary indicative of having had avalanche safety training, described how the “crown line” broke between “two interfaces with a glass-like fracture dynamic at the head of the crown.”

It was essentially two avalanches in one.

“The slide then violently propagated across, west to east, along the entire ridge line of the boulder, quickly metamorphosing into a loose wet slide dynamic near tail-end (the funnel affect),” the observer reported.

Steamboat Springs skier Kelly Northcutt posted a photograph of a skier-triggered, sharp fracture line in the snowpack at the crest of a steep pitch in an area described as “backcountry accessed from Steamboat Ski Area third pitch,” on Friday.

Steamboat Ski Area officials strongly urge people not to go beyond its boundary and especially if they don’t know the terrain. The ski area also cautions against following the tracks of others, assuming that party knew where it was going.

Backcountry skiers are also reminded that the ski area is not obligated to rescue skiers or riders outside its operating boundary. If Steamboat Ski Patrol participates in a rescue, the rescued person may be charged up to $500.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1.

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