Updated February 22, 2012 at 5:59 p.m.
Steamboat Springs Avalanche forecaster Spencer Logan, of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said Wednesday that this might be a good winter for backcountry skiers and snowboarders to rethink the urgency that pulls them into the high country.
Logan issued an avalanche warning Wednesday for the Steamboat zone including the Flat Tops and the Park Range, where the danger was rated high at and above tree line on slopes ranging from north to east and south aspects. He advised anyone going into the backcountry to avoid traveling in or below avalanche terrain.
“By being in the backcountry, you can learn a lot when the snowpack is really reactive like it is now,” Logan said. “But you have to be extremely careful. It’s probably not a good time to be out there. People should be thinking about dialing back their expectations.”
Since Steamboat Ski Area reported more than 27 inches of dry snow Monday, additional wet snow coupled with winds at high elevations have increased the complexity of an already tender snowpack, Logan said. The additional 6 to 12 inches of snow that fell in the Park Range on Tuesday and overnight into Wednesday added between 1 to 2 inches of water to the snowpack, he added.
“Winds have been moderate to strong from the southwest and west,” Logan wrote in a Web post Wednesday morning. “That will drift the snow into extensive wind slabs near and above tree line. Expect large to very large natural and triggered avalanches running on wind-loaded slopes.”
There have been no firsthand reports of avalanches in the area since Monday. But Weather observer Art Judson, who also is a retired avalanche forecaster, said he had received a report early last week of a fresh avalanche on a steep southwest aspect of Hahn’s Peak near Steamboat Lake. That slide was about 400 vertical feet above the remnants of the defunct Tom Thumb mine, he said. Another avalanche broke to the ground southwest of Little Mountain. That slide was between Hahn’s Peak and Hahn’s Peak Village in the vicinity of Forest Road 410.
An observer who filed a report with the Avalanche Information Center on Tuesday was able to deliberately trigger small, soft slab avalanches on steep, south-facing slabs in the backcountry near Steamboat, Logan reported. He expressed concern that there is the potential for one of those small slides to break down into weak layers deep in the snowpack where unstable crystalline depth hoar persists from the long snow drought earlier in the winter. That could lead to large and destructive avalanches, he wrote.
Logan agreed that the unusual snowpack this winter has created conditions where it is potentially dangerous for experienced backcountry skiers to trust their familiar haunts.
He likened this winter’s snowpack to a house built on a bad foundation, making it inherently flawed.
“The foundation is rotten in the snowpack, and the problem is it’s going to be very hard to get rid of this year.” Logan said.
Every avalanche accident results from a series of human mistakes, and this winter is a time for people playing in the backcountry to expand their margin of error and not take risks, he advised.
“The avalanche doesn’t know you’re an expert,” Logan said.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com
Avalanche danger scale