Strong snowslide season

Local avalanche forecasters fearing the worst


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Those hoping to learn avalanche survival skills can attend next week's Ski Haus Avalanche Clinic. Events include a free Colorado Avalanche Information Center clinic from 7 to 9 p.m. Jan. 11 at the Depot Art Center on 13th Street, and field sessions on Rabbit Ears Pass on Saturday and Sunday. Thirty-dollar fees on Friday and Saturday will benefit the avalanche information center and Routt County Search and Rescue. Sign up at Ski Haus or call 879-0385 for more information.

— The Colorado Avalanche Information Center's forecast for the Steamboat Springs and Park Range area was only "moderate" Thursday, but officials are bracing for an abundant season of snowslides.

"Chances are it's going to be one of the worst years for avalanches," said Randall Hannaway, president of Routt County Search and Rescue. "I'm nervous, and I probably will be for the next couple months here."

Avalanche forecasts remained "considerable" for other parts of the state Thursday, but Scott Toepfer of the information center said warmer temperatures and calmer winds near Steamboat have allowed the snowpack to settle into a more stable state.

"We're in a lull right now," Toepfer said.

The most recent avalanche reported in Northwest Colorado was near Rabbit Ears Peak and likely occurred Wednesday afternoon, Toepfer said. The slide was estimated at four feet deep by 150 feet wide, and ran for at least 300 vertical feet.

Steamboat's avalanche forecast was high Sunday after a strong storm that forced road closures throughout the state with gusting winds and heavy snow. Some roads, including portions of Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 6 over Loveland Pass, were closed due to the need to complete avalanche control, Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Mindy Crane said Monday.

"That really stirred things up," Toepfer said of the storm. "The weather has gotten nice and that cycle of avalanches has mostly run its course."

Although the danger is easing, the avalanche information center still is noting the possibility of unstable slabs caused by fierce winds, especially on steep, convex, wind-loaded slopes. Hannaway is urging caution for those who venture into the backcountry for activities such as skiing and snowmobiling.

"My take is that it would be pretty unstable snow due to wind-loading and the sheer amount of snow we've had," Hannaway said. "Wind can be a huge factor in creating the ideal conditions for avalanches."

Snow blowing

CDOT reported sustained winds of 50 mph and gusts of 70 mph earlier this week, and the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. reported 126 inches of snow in December, making it the third snowiest December in 29 years. Hannaway said such a large amount of snow in such a short period of time doesn't allow the snow to bond well.

"As we get even more snow, it's going to deteriorate further," Hannaway said.

A strong storm expected this weekend could bring Steamboat back to an elevated risk for avalanches. The National Weather Service in Grand Junction is reporting that a strong winter storm - with blowing and drifting snow - is possible Saturday through Monday.

"This next storm that's coming in this weekend looks pretty strong," Toepfer said. "I would speculate that avalanche danger will be on the up by Saturday."

While avalanches and avalanche fatalities are high this winter nationwide, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, Toepfer said there has only been one avalanche-caused death in Colorado this winter and did not necessarily agree with Hannaway's dire prediction for the season. Toepfer did acknowledge that there easily could have been more deaths so far this winter.

"We have had a lot of people caught in a lot of close calls this year," Toepfer said. "We have really dodged the bullet, especially over the holiday week."

Hannaway noted an incident involving a Minnesota snowmobiler buried by an avalanche Monday in Arapaho National Forest. The man was unconscious when rescued but survived with only an injured shoulder. Hannaway said the incident underscores the need to travel into the backcountry prepared with equipment such as an avalanche beacon, shovel and a probe - and the knowledge to use the gear.

"Understand that in all likelihood, the people who are going to save you are the people with you," Hannaway said.

Colorado has more avalanche fatalities than any other state, with 200 since 1956. Colorado averages five or six avalanche fatalities a year, Toepfer said.

There were five during the 2006-07 winter season.


bcpow 9 years, 3 months ago

Hey Scareaway...I hear the sky is falling too.


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