Avalanche danger increasing

Heavy snows adding stress to snowpack

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— High winds were expected to inundate the peaks surrounding Steamboat Springs Wednesday night, adding even more danger to a serious avalanche situation.

"All of the snow that fell (Tuesday) was just one more layer on top of everything that fell last week," said Knox Williams, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. "It's adding stress without letup. The wind that's forecasted -- that ought to be the final nail in the coffin."

Williams stressed that no avalanches have been reported in the Steamboat area and the formal warning of "high" avalanche danger is not based on any recent fieldwork. Instead, he said, meteorological data suggest the conditions that lead to snow slides are present in Colorado's northern mountains, including the peaks in the Park Range (closest to Steamboat), the Elkhead Mountains near Craig and the Sierra Madres on the Wyoming border.

"We may not get a lot of reported avalanches," Williams said. "But all the ingredients should be in place."

Snowfall amounts on Tuesday ranged from 7 inches up to 15 to 20 inches at the highest elevations.

High winds can be the added ingredient that leads to dangerous slab avalanches, Williams said.

Wind blows loose snow over the crest of ridges and deposits it on the leeward side, loading the slopes with cornices. But it does more than that, Williams said. Snow deposited by wind is denser than when it fell from the sky, creating slab conditions.

Avalanche danger within the boundaries of the Steamboat Ski Area is generally considered mild, but ski patrol was out early Wednesday morning dropping explosive charges in the rock bands between Chutes One, Two and Three to minimize the potential for a snow slide. Assistant Ski Patrol Director Wes Richey said patrollers were "ski cutting" other slopes, such as North St. Pats and East Face. The term ski cutting means patrollers equipped with shovels and avalanche beacons were skiing zigzag patterns across the slopes in order to determine if they were prone to avalanche.

"A lot of people have the impression we don't have avalanche danger at Steamboat," Richey said. "We're not like Snowbird (Utah), but we do have concerns about sloughing on East Face and Christmas Tree Bowl. We don't have a lot of events that would (raise avalanche danger) but today was one. It doesn't take much -- a little pocket here or there."

Avalanche forecasters took note of dramatic changes in snow water equivalents near Steamboat, the result of almost 5 feet of snow that fell during the last week in February. Those statistics are available through remote sensing devices.

The text of a written warning posted on the Internet by Williams reads in part: "Triggered avalanches are likely or even certain on steep backcountry slopes. Backcountry users should use extra caution and avoid snow-loaded terrain steeper than 30 degrees at this time, and avoid traveling in the runouts of steep slopes. This statement is of particular interest to persons using the backcountry outside the developed ski area boundaries. This is a great time to enjoy the powder skiing in the safe environs of a ski resort."

Backcountry skiers aren't the only people vulnerable to avalanches in Colorado. Snowshoers and snowmobile enthusiasts have also been trapped in slides.

Richey said skiers headed into the backcountry should avail themselves of the reports put out by the Avalanche Information Center and make certain everyone in their party has the proper safety equipment.

Similarly, skiers entering the most extreme terrain near the top of the Steamboat Ski Area need to pay close attention to signage and ropes strung to close specific areas that hold the potential for danger, Richey said.

A half dozen skiers learned that the hard way Wednesday, and had their ski passes pulled for ignoring the markers. They crossed over a rope meant to prevent skiers and riders from entering an area where avalanche control work was underway. Richey said the interlopers could have endangered his patrollers and pulled their ski passes -- a suspension that could last a week or longer.

Richey said one of the skiers protested that the rope had been trampled out of sight under the snow, and the closure wasn't properly signed. Richey responded that closed areas are posted at the top of Morningside lift, and skiers need to inform themselves before entering the ski area's extreme terrain.

"I don't like to do it, but I'll pull a pass every time, before somebody gets hurt," Richey said. "The problem is, it puts people below in danger. We need cooperation."

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