Less snowfall creates greater avalanche danger in Routt County

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Skier's body recovered near Aspen

A search team says it has found the body of a skier who was apparently caught in an avalanche in the backcountry outside Aspen.

The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department reported that the victim was found at about 9 a.m. Wednesday near a popular backcountry hut. The victim’s name hasn’t been released.

The avalanche struck at about 4 p.m. Tuesday. Authorities said the skier was in a group of eight, and all had backcountry

experience. They tried to find the missing skier but couldn’t.

A 911 call got through at about 6 p.m. Tuesday, and Mountain Rescue Aspen sent several searchers to the scene.

— The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported on its Web site Wednesday that it had received an account of a skier who had triggered a small avalanche on a northwest-facing slope on Soda Mountain, north of Buffalo Pass.

“The slide started as a loose snow avalanche, but broke 2-3 feet deep, 20 feet wide and down near the ground as it crossed over a steep section of the slope,” CAIC avalanche forecaster Ethan Greene wrote.

The slide happened in an area accessible to hybrid snowmobile skiers and snowboarders.

Members of the CAIC staff joined a search team that found the body of a skier Wednesday morning who apparently was caught in an avalanche near the Lindley Hut outside Aspen.

Elsewhere in Routt County, there were reports of small avalanches and other signs of an unstable snowpack.

“Settlement noises (whumpfs) were reported in the mountains around Steamboat Lake in the past two days, and several slab avalanches have been reported on Saddle Mountain, Sand Mountain and the mountains immediately north of Hahn’s Peak Village,” said retired avalanche forecaster Art Judson, who lives in Steamboat Springs.

“Whuumpfff” is the sound backcountry skiers and snowshoers don’t want to hear. It’s a clear signal that weak layers are settling under a person’s weight and a warning of heightened avalanche danger in the mountains surrounding Steamboat.

“It means the snowpack remains unstable, and more snow in the next 24 hours will only heighten the risk from avalanches,” Judson said.

It might strike some as counterintuitive, but this winter’s below-average snowfall is contributing to the avalanche danger, Judson said. Angular snow crystals have re-formed at ground level, creating what are known as faceted layers that make slopes more avalanche-prone. Rising water vapor in the snowpack causes the formation of faceted snow crystals.

In a heavier snow year, Judson said, strong layers tend to form above the faceted layer, creating a bridge that stabilizes the slope.

“They’ve never formed this year,” he said.

Tuesday’s snow depth measurement at the top of Buffalo Pass showed 101 inches of accumulated snowpack. It sounds like a lot of snow, but overall, the water stored in the snow in the Yampa and White river basins is just 77 percent of average, according to the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. On the west summit of Rabbit Ears Pass, the snowpack is even lower, just 53 percent of average. In North Routt, at the Elk River site, it’s a healthier 89 percent.

Judson has tallied 27.6 inches of snow in February at his official weather station located on a bench of land between downtown and the ski area.

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