Steamboat avalanche danger highlights importance of public reporting
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Heavy snowfall and gusting winds this week have presented very dangerous avalanche conditions for the higher elevations around Steamboat Springs.
Such conditions underscore the need to report avalanches that occur in the backcountry, something local experts say has been lacking in the Steamboat and Flat Tops zones.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has issued an avalanche watch from Thursday morning until Friday night. Avalanche danger near and above tree line will be high during this period and possibly through the weekend.
The center advises people to avoid traveling on or under avalanche terrain on Friday.
- Visit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website.
- Click “Submit an Observation.”
- Fill out as much information as possible about the avalanche and the conditions, such as weather and snowpack.
- Include photos when possible.
“Any avalanche that you trigger or that occurs naturally will be large and destructive,” the center’s website warns.
In the past decade, 113 people have died in Colorado from avalanches, according to reports from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The center has documented two avalanche deaths across the state since the start of the year.
To warn people about avalanche dangers, the center collects reports from the public about incidents that occur, divided into regions.
Daniel Edmiston teaches outdoor education at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs. He said compared to other regions, Steamboat lacks sufficient avalanche reporting.
Eleven reports of avalanches in the Steamboat area have been submitted in 2019, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
By comparison, Gunnison County has submitted 144 avalanche sightings since the start of the year.
While Steamboat tends to have less frequent avalanches than areas with steeper terrain, like Gunnison, Edmiston also attributes the discrepancy in reports to a lack of awareness among people in Routt County.
He explained that in an area such as Gunnison, which has its own avalanche advisory center, reporting incidents is more commonplace.
Edmiston, who used to live in Crested Butte, said the backcountry community there seemed more connected. People had a greater expectation to alert others about dangers in the area.
“It’s more a part of their lives,” Edmiston said.
That does not make it any less important to report avalanches in Steamboat. Public reports buttress the limited resources of a handful of avalanche experts who monitor incidents across the state. They can be invaluable data to help those experts forecast dangers.
Kreston Rohrig is the dedicated forecaster for the Steamboat area. He also monitors avalanche dangers in Vail and Summit County.
“That’s a lot of ground to cover for one guy,” he said.
Splitting his time among those places makes it impossible to report every avalanche on his own. He usually comes to Steamboat once or twice per month. That is why he relies on public observations to fill in the gaps.
“The more data we get, the more accurate our forecasts can be,” Rohrig said.
Avalanches vary based on the snow and weather conditions. There are nine types of avalanches in all, according to Rohrig.
After this week’s heavy snow storms, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center lists storm slab avalanches as the most likely to occur in Steamboat.
They happen when a layer of new, unstable snow — a slab — slides over the old snow surface. Such slabs can be difficult to identify because the surface of the snow is often soft and powder-packed.
Storm slab avalanches can occur naturally and without warning. Edmiston said that is because the base snow layer can adapt to a certain amount of additional weight from new snow.
But a sudden increase in that weight, such as the dense snowfall from this week’s storms, can cause instabilities and massive slides.
“Avalanches triggered in these snow storms can be 2 to 3 feet deep,” Rohrig said. “That’s plenty deep to bury someone.”
For that reason, he advises people to avoid traveling on or below an avalanche area for a few days after this week’s snow storms.
When reporting avalanches, Rohrig said any information is better than none at all. People should at least describe the elevation at which the incident occurred and offer a general size of the avalanche.
“If they’re more savvy and they can give us detailed information, that’s extra credit,” Rohrig said.
Including pictures in a report can be especially helpful in filling any gaps in the observation.
Edmiston teaches avalanche safety classes through CMC that are open to the public. He offers four basic, Level I courses and one Level 2 course each year. He shows people how to recognize and avoid avalanche dangers, as well as what to do if one occurs.
When it comes to the backcountry, he said that being educated could mean the difference between life and death.
“Ninety percent of people caught in avalanches are caught because they triggered them or someone in their party did,” Edmiston said. “It can be a preventable circumstance.”
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