Heavy snow spells backcountry trouble

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Forecasters at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center are warning of pockets of "high" avalanche danger at and above timberline in the northern mountains. That includes the Park Range north and east of Steamboat Springs.

Forecaster Spencer Logan said the combination of a spotty layer of old, weak snow near the ground, and a heavy snow load added during the weekend, is making analysis of avalanche danger complex for backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers. He said avalanche-control work elsewhere in the northern mountains has triggered very large slides in places, and not in others. He added that the weight of a person might be sufficient to trigger an avalanche.

"Backcountry travel is going to require some careful detective work to figure out what is going on in the snowpack and how dangerous it is," Logan said. "There are two big, obvious problems with the snowpack right now. A big load has been added quickly. Storm totals in the northern and central mountains are 2 to 3 feet. This new load is sitting on the other problem, old weak snow."

The old snow has become "faceted" and cannot support the weight of the new snow. Logan said the weakest snow could be found on northwest-, north- and northeast-facing slopes.

Backcountry travelers with skills in evaluating avalanche danger should not be lulled into complacency by positive results in one area, he cautioned. The variability in the weak layer of snow near the ground from place to place, and from day to day, means danger assessments should be continually refined.

The avalanche report issued at 3 p.m. Tuesday indicated moderate danger below treeline, increasing to considerable at and above treeline. Backcountry travelers in the northern mountains could encounter pockets of high danger at and above treeline on slopes facing southeast all of the way to northeast, according to the center.

The need to practice avalanche safety hit close to home last winter when 26-year-old Michael Gebhardt of Steamboat Springs was trapped and killed Jan. 3 by an avalanche while backcountry skiing on Soda Mountain, northwest of Buffalo Pass.

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