Friday, December 29, 2006
Steamboat Springs Even wily coyotes would be wise to pay attention to avalanche conditions.
A backcountry skier on Buffalo Pass submitted a report to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center of a significant avalanche apparently caused by a coyote.
"The backcountry skier identified coyote tracks, from their shape, leading into the avalanche path," Art Judson said. The same tracks exiting the avalanche run-out suggest the animal survived its brush with the snow slide.
Judson is a retired avalanche forecaster who coordinates a small group of backcountry skiers who funnel information to the Avalanche Information Center. The center's Spencer Logan said Thursday his organization depends heavily on the willingness of skiers, snowmobilers and snowshoers to submit the anecdotal information.
The Avalanche Information Center rates the danger in the back country in the Steamboat area and nearby Flat Tops Range as moderate. That means naturally occurring avalanches are unlikely and human (or coyote) caused avalanches are a possibility.
Still, as recently as Dec. 25, the danger was real.
The avalanche involving the coyote was the most significant of three avalanches reported Christmas Day.
Logan said they were the result of the snow that fell Dec. 22 on top of snow that had been on the ground for more than a week.
"That snow fell on a somewhat stable snowpack and all of the avalanches were fairly small," Logan said.
Two of the slides observed on Buffalo Pass this week were shallow soft slab snow slides with fractures less than 1 foot deep. The fracture lines were 50 to 75 feet wide, Logan said.
"They were big enough to push you around. They probably wouldn't have hurt you unless you were unlucky or (fell into) a terrain trap," he said.
However, the avalanche escaped by the coyote was more than 2 feet deep and ran about 300 feet. It gathered enough momentum to fracture the old snow beneath it, Logan said.
"That's an indication the snowpack is getting close to the point where we could see these larger avalanches," he added.
The center advises backcountry travelers be particularly cautious of steep slopes where wind driven snow has created hard slabs.
Judson said there are signs of variable instability in the snowpack that predates Dec. 22.
There was also a rain event Dec. 14 that reached above 10,000 feet on Farwell Mountain in North Routt, according to an observer there, Judson said.
The ice crust that forms when rain freezes on old snow creates snowpack conditions that are more unstable than sun crust, he added.
"We haven't had enough snow since to really load the snowpack," Judson said.
Logan said he and his colleagues were "tearing their hair out" Thursday trying to anticipate how the storm pushing into Colorado would affect avalanche conditions in the different regions of the Colorado Rockies.
Backcountry avalanche deaths were unheard of in Routt County for the past three decades of the 20th Century. However, a 26-year-old Steamboat man died in an avalanche on Soda Mountain, just north of Buffalo Pass in January 2005. And a 34-year old Steamboat man died in a snow slide on Farwell Mountain in March 2001.