Avalanche: Colorado ski areas take precautions due to high-risk conditions


— Jeff Hirschboeck and the rest of the avalanche control team at the Steamboat Ski Area dropped a dozen two-pound canisters of an explosive called "HDP" onto the steepest pitches in Morningside Park Tuesday morning. The explosives didn't set off any avalanches.

"All we got was some settlement it sent cracks in the snow," Hirschboeck said.

Spontaneous avalanches are extremely rare within the boundaries of the Steamboat Ski Area, but that doesn't mean they couldn't happen.

"We have three active, natural ava-lanche chutes, Chute 1, Chute 2 and Chute 3," Hirschboeck said. "We've controlled the chutes four times this year and three out of the four times, they slid to the bottom."

Statewide, avalanche danger this month has been extremely high, with more than 200 avalanches recorded Saturday and Sunday. Things had quieted down by Monday, but the danger in the backcountry hasn't subsided.

Knox Williams of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said the risk to backcountry travelers not just skiers, but snowboarders, snowmobilers and snowshoe enthusiasts remains significant.

"We dropped the avalanche warning Monday as natural activity has all but ended," Williams said. "However, triggered releases remain probable on steep wind-loaded slopes. We think backcountry travelers should be very cautious and avoid the steeper slopes at this time. And we don't expect the danger to improve anytime soon, with continued wind, cold temperatures and more snow in the forecast."

Here in Steamboat, in addition to the obvious chutes, the ski patrol also uses explosives to control the possibility of avalanches in all of Christmas Tree Bowl and two other trails accessed through Gate D at the ski area East Face and North St. Pat's. The steep pitch beneath the Morningside Park Chairlift is also controlled, and that's where Hirschboeck and colleagues Dave Hatchimongi, Al Rosenthal, Kyle Lawton and Micki Badaracca were dropping hand charges Tuesday morning. In addition to the lift line, the ski patrollers dropped explosives on a trail named Wake Up Call.

Steamboat isn't known as an avalanche-prone area because it lacks the dramatic 1,000-foot chutes that can be scene from Interstate 70 in Summit County. But the same conditions that cause avalanches elsewhere exist here, Hirschboeck said.

He said most people don't realize the role that alpine grasses play in causing avalanches. He explained that at high altitudes, the ground rarely freezes because it is covered with an insulating blanket of snow in the fall. That snow mats down the native grasses, which become wet and slippery, creating an unstable surface right at the base of the snowpack.

During winters like this one is turning into, repeated snow events add layer upon layer of snow that never has a chance to settle and become cohesive.

Add in a couple of cold, clear nights when hoar frost crystals form on top of several exposed layers, and the mixture becomes the ingredients of an avalanche, Hirschboeck said.

"Right now, any steep backcountry slopes that have not had traffic on them are still in high hazard," Hirschboeck said. "The snow came so fast, it hasn't had a chance to settle. There are very many different layers and several hazardous layers within the pack. We know that for a fact."

John Saunders is an avalanche expert, and he stayed out of the backcountry last weekend.

"I had friends visit from out of town and they wanted to go backcountry skiing," Saunders said. "With the heavy wind loading (of the snowpack), we just stayed away. I'd like to go back and ski another day, so I'm pretty conservative."

Saunders is a professor of wilderness studies at the Alpine Campus of Colorado Mountain College. He taught three sections of avalanche awareness classes at CMC during the first semester and all three were full, with 12 students apiece.

Saunders said even though Routt County's backcountry slopes aren't prone to the big point avalanches that are more common in neighboring Summit County, there is still danger in the mountains.

"We don't have a lot of visible avalanches because a lot of our back country areas are away from highways," Saunders said. "But if you go into Mica Basin (in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness), you'll see avalanche run-outs, and some areas on Rabbit Ears like Little Snowbird can slide. Even Walton Peak probably slides a couple of times a year. The danger is present here, it's just more subtle."

Peter Van De Carr has seen the danger up close and personal.

He was skiing an area of the Flat Tops near Trappers Lake in 1995 when an avalanche caught one of his friends and swept him 300 yards down the mountain without burying him.

Van De Carr said he and Tom Wood and Sandy Buchanan had been skiing a powder stash called Red's Ridge all day.

"It was an unbelievably great day," Van De Carr recalled. "We really diced it up I'd say we made 10 runs each. And we were being so careful. We all had beacons and shovels and we skied one at a time."

The trio had been making telemark turns in 18 to 24 inches of snow. However, toward the end of the day, they decided to leave the north side of the ridge, where they had been tracking up the powder, and try a run on the south-facing side of the ridge. What they didn't realize was that the sun had baked the surface of the old snowpack on the south side, creating a slick, hard surface that had failed to bond with the new snow.

What happened next reminded Van De Carr of the Stanley Kubrick movie "Dr. Strangelove."

"That's when the slide broke right at my toes," Van De Carr said. "Tom and Sandy were carried away. Sandy was able to swim to the side, but Tom was kind of like Slim Pickens riding the A-Bomb."

Wood recalls that his experience as a whitewater kayaker helped him keep from being swallowed up by the avalanche.

"I've had a lot of experience swimming in rivers," Wood said. "That contributed to my survival. I was swimming like a banshee on my back I think that's the only thing that saved me."

Wood limped out of the backcountry with a cracked tibia and nothing worse.

Van De Carr has heard the old adages that slopes facing the northeast and slopes in the range of 35 to 42 degrees steepness are most prone to slide. But he has learned to be wary of all slopes.

"I'm sure the slope we were skiing that day was right at 30 degrees or maybe even a little less," Van De Carr said.

Hirschboeck said the complexity of the current snowpack mixed with layers of large hoar frost crystals adds up to avalanche danger in the backcountry.

"It's laying out there in wait," Hirschboeck said.


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