A massive avalanche tore down Fish Creek Canyon in February, shattering the idea among some locals that the canyon wasn't prone to slides.

Michael Martin/Courtesy

A massive avalanche tore down Fish Creek Canyon in February, shattering the idea among some locals that the canyon wasn't prone to slides.

February slide in Fish Creek Canyon opens backcountry skiers' eyes

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The avalanche left broken off trees and plenty of debris in its trail.

— Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012, dawned cold but primed to warm. It was cloudy but with a chance of sun. There was no respite for the wind, which roared at 20 miles per hour and gusted to twice that.

The only thing that seemed to be in the air in Steamboat Springs, however, was lingering rings of joy and shouts of exhalation that seemingly still echoed across the Yampa Valley from the legendary powder day three days earlier: 27 inches overnight that no one would ever forget.

On the morning of Feb. 20, no one knew how close Steamboat came to disaster. Even as skiers and snowboarders told and retold stories about the Best Day Ever, a tremendous avalanche let loose in the mountains above town. The unprecedented slab broke free where slabs aren’t supposed to break free, snow flushed down terrain where snow isn’t supposed to flush down, and with one giant swoosh, backcountry enthusiasts were alerted that there is no safe place. Even Fish Creek Canyon can slide.

No one was injured that day. In fact, no one reported seeing the slide happen. Happy story? Not quite. The 2012 Fish Creek avalanche, the largest anyone can recall in that specific area, was the product of months of rare conditions, heaps of unique circumstances and exactly the wrong weather at exactly the wrong time. One month into the 2013 season, things are setting up eerily similar.

All the wrong conditions

Fish Creek Canyon is where many Routt County backcountry skiers earn their skins. It’s more like sidecountry terrain because it’s accessible via gates from Steamboat Ski Area, and with some dedicated skate-skiing and one healthy climb, it’s part of an in-bounds, out-of-bounds, lift-accessible loop.

Enthusiasts love it for its seclusion, for its features and for its powder.

“There are rock pieces, different drops and open fields of powder,” Steamboat skier David Lamb said. “It holds its temperature a little better because it’s not facing the sun, and that little ravine catches just a bit more snow. You always know even a few days after a big storm you’ll get fresh tracks.”

Some of those same factors have helped give the canyon the reputation as a safe-skiing zone. The direction of its slopes protect its snow. Those rocks and thick groves of trees help anchor the snow. The wind has to blow at a fairly specific angle to affect the area, and traditionally, the wind doesn’t blow in that direction.

Last season, though, everything added up wrong, and the process began with a crummy start to the season. The ski area — and, in turn, the canyon, situated on Mount Werner’s left shoulder, as seen from town — survived on very little natural snow through November and December and even into January. That problem was compounded by frequent spikes in temperature and several tremendously windy days. Those conditions created a horrible snow base layer — one that had more in common with marbles on a wooden floor than cinder blocks on a cement foundation.

“There was a different wind pattern,” said Michael Martin, director of the ski business school at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus in Steamboat and an backcountry aficionado.

He couldn’t cite a similar set of conditions in his 18 years in town.

“There have been a lot more wind events recently than we’re used to seeing,” he said. “That wind creates these big drifts in there, and it makes a bad crust on the snow itself. It sets up a bad layer for avalanches.”

Then the dump of all dumps came: the 27 inches.

Lamb and nearly every unoccupied Steamboat resident skipped work that morning for what the ski area reported as an all-time record powder day.

It made for a wonderful experience, but it was another bad development for the snowpack. Now, 27 inches of snow sat atop a bad layer that was built on a bad foundation.

Finally, a few more rotten days of weather proved too much. It was 28 degrees on the record day Feb. 20, 30 degrees Feb. 21 when more snow fell, 41 degrees Feb. 22 with even more snow and, despite a cold morning, 37 degrees Feb. 23.

“It was the perfect storm,” Steamboat Ski Patrol member Kyle Lawton said. “We had the 27 inches, then five and eight on consecutive days. It was really cold, so that snow was dry. Then it got warm and wet, and that’s the worst-case scenario. It was basically an upside-down snowpack.”

And it slid.

Unlike any other

Skiers had been aware of the horrible snowpack conditions all season, passing warnings among to one another and communicating their information with Ski Patrol. Martin said that helped keep out-of-bounds traffic down, though it didn’t stop it.

Still, everyone considers it fortunate that no one was caught up in the slide.

Lamb said the slide almost has to have been caused by someone skiing there, but if that person was aware of what happened, he or she hasn’t come forward to tell what must have been a harrowing tale.

Other backcountry regulars were left to examine the evidence after the fact, and what they found frequently left their jaws on the ground.

“It was amazing to me,” Martin said. “You had all these trees that were uprooted, and there was debris.”

The slope slid from Hell’s Wall — a 100-foot-tall rock cliff that’s one of the area’s primary landmarks — to Bird’s Beak — a distinctive-looking rock that splits the usual trails, one that heads back to the ski area and another that ends at the Fish Creek Falls parking lot.

Martin estimated the slide was 400 to 500 yards wide. That enormous mass of snow rumbled down and covered Fish Creek and most of the usual traverse routes out of the area.

“You could have been coming out the high canyon and gotten taken out by it and never seen it coming,” Lamb said.

When inspecting the area afterward, Lawton said the crown still was several inches above his 48-inch probe, meaning the slab was more than 4 feet deep.

“That’s pretty substantial“ he said. “As easily as it moved through the trees, it was moving quite a bit of snow.”

A chance to learn

The lesson is simple, Martin explained: Any slope can slide.

“In Steamboat, that’s not generally an issue,” he said. “When you go to Jackson or Whistler, you wake up to bombs exploding on big days when the patrollers are out there doing their jobs, but here, it’s not at the front of everybody’s minds.”

There are things you can do to stay safe:

■ Take one of several classes offered in the area.

■ Watch out for that wind and for bad foundations.

■ Be wary of fluctuating temperature cycles.

■ No matter how safe the terrain was last year or for the past five years, consider an avalanche possible.

There’s a long way to go before it’s known whether winter 2012-13 will contain the same conditions. The base already is bad, but skiers and snowboarders can pray for cold temperatures and a steady supply of snow, rather than a couple of massive dumps.

No matter how things shape up, though, it’s important to be aware.

“We’re trying to shed light onto the idea that there are bigger things at play here,” Martin said. “Something you’d never think could slide can slide. People said the canyon would never slide, and it basically slid from the entrance all the way down to the creek.”

Take a class

Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs offers several avalanche safety classes, all of which include a two-day field trip. Level 1 classes begin Jan. 15 and Feb. 5 and cost $56 plus a $31 travel charge. The Level 2 class begins Feb. 12 and costs $112 plus a $31 travel charge.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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