U.S. Forest Service GIS specialist Nick Bencke stands in the bottom of a snow pit east of Summit Lake on Buffalo Pass on April 1, where the snow depth was measured at 194 inches. The snow there is beginning to rival record amounts recorded in spring 2011.

Courtesy photo

U.S. Forest Service GIS specialist Nick Bencke stands in the bottom of a snow pit east of Summit Lake on Buffalo Pass on April 1, where the snow depth was measured at 194 inches. The snow there is beginning to rival record amounts recorded in spring 2011.

Snow near Summit Lake northwest of Steamboat Springs is more than 15 feet deep


— The snow in the mountains outside Steamboat Springs is more than 15 feet deep, and the photographic evidence is eye popping.

A photo of a U.S. Forest Service employee standing in a 194-inch-deep snow pit on Buffalo Pass is giving rise to comparisons to the snowpack records established in the spring of 2011 on the Continental Divide northwest of Steamboat.

The photograph circulating this week on Facebook shows Hahn’s Peak Ranger District GIS specialist Nick Bencke standing with a long measuring pole and a shovel in a deep hole in the snow cut with a series of terraces leading down to the bottom. It was taken April 1. And although the surface snow has settled since then, the dramatic snow pit is vivid demonstration of just how deep the snow is in the mountains this spring.

Bencke said a more recent hole dug on April 6 was 185 inches deep. Any way you shovel it, the snow is more than 15 feet deep.

“It was our 19th annual USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) pit dug with George Ingersol,” Bencke wrote in an email Monday afternoon. "Record snow depth! He probed our test area, which is in the same general area every year, to get the most representative snow depth.”

The site of the pit is on a hillside about a half mile east of Summit Lake. Bencke wrote that Ingersol’s probing revealed some places where the snow was 16 feet deep, but he rejected them, feeling that wind played too big a part in the depth at those spots.

“Either way it was quite a dig,” Bencke wrote. “Unbelievable pit. High density snow too.”

Retired U.S. Forest Service avalanche expert Art Judson, of Steamboat Springs, who co-authored a book on the science of snow, said the April 1 measurement was 9 inches deeper than a measurement taken at the same place on April 5, 2011, when the final snowpack reached record levels later in the spring.

The Facebook post and the same photo posted at the Web page of the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service originally described the snow depth as 196 inches, but that amount has since been corrected to 194 inches, Judson said.

So, how does snow depth on Buffalo Pass this month compare to 2011? The answer is tricky, because the USGS site in the photograph is not the same as the widely reported Tower snowpack measuring site that is maintained and monitored on Buffalo Pass by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The Tower site never reached 194 inches in 2011, a year in which the Yampa River, where it enters Steamboat Springs, overflowed its banks to an extent not seen since the early 1980s.

A hand measurement made Monday at Tower confirmed the snow stakes there reflect a depth of 156 inches, Judson reported.

There “is quite a difference between the Tower reading today and their pit, but as you know, snow depth varies, and this winter there were several days with strong winds, which could account for some of the depth difference,” Judson said Monday.

The Tower site recorded some all-time records in 2011.

On April 23, 2001, Mike Gillespie, the former Colorado snow survey supervisor for the NRCS, confirmed that the measured snow depth at Tower had set a new record of 180 inches (15 feet), eclipsing the previous record – the 175-inch snow depth recorded on April 25, 1978.

However, the NRCS is more interested in reporting how much water is contained in the snowpack, and on May 5, 2011, after that April saw 27 days of snow, State Conservationist Allen Green confirmed to Steamboat Today that the Tower measuring site had set an all-time record in water content, not just for the location, but for the entire state.

Tower “reached a total (snow) accumulation for this season over 200 inches deep, with 72.6 inches of water content,” Green said in 2011. “This exceeds the previous record reading of 71.1 inches of water equivalent measured in 1978, also on Buffalo Pass.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1


Scott Wedel 1 year, 6 months ago

So if what really matters is amount of water in the snow and not the depth then what is the current amount of water up there?


John Weibel 1 year, 6 months ago

If it is high density, then there is lots of water, not that that is an answer. In addition I'm sure you were asking for hypothetical reasons as that would have been good to report based upon 2011.


mark hartless 1 year, 6 months ago

Google "Snotel" and specify Colorado.

Then a map will come up of the state's Snotel sites. Click on the one north of Steamboat that says "Tower" (not dry lake that's at the parking lot) and then click on "last 7 days".

It will give you snow-pack AND snow-water equivalent, as well as elevation, termps, and other useful info.

Current snow-pack is about 12.5 feet, far from any record in my memory. Water eq. is about 55". That's about 55" of "rain" getting ready to be released down towards town. Again, while healthy amount, NOT a record at all, I don't think.

The Buff Pass site is one of the very few in the nation that will typicall continue to ADD to it's numbers-sometimes well into May. Most of the other sites in the region will peak about this time of year and be on their way down while Buff is still adding.

One good look at the regional sites reveals how much of an anomoly Buff Pass really is. One amazing place...


dave mcirvin 1 year, 6 months ago

thanks Nick (just viewing your photo makes my back spasm), Tom and Jud.


john bailey 1 year, 6 months ago

with the temps in the forecast, hope its not an indicator of the snow melt to come. nice and easy would be great, keep them fish in the river happy all year long......couldn't agree more Dave, oh my back.......


Scott Wedel 1 year, 6 months ago

The article says 72.6" of water is the record so current snow pack at 55" (thanks Mark) is far from a record. Looking at the Tower Snotel data, what made 2011 so remarkable is that it continued to build in April and May, reaching a peak of 79.8 on May 28th. Seems that the previous record was broken on May 5th, 2011 causing a press release found by the reporter of this article, but snow continued to accumulate for several more weeks.

The 2011 snow melt was an interesting demonstration of what creek/river floods where because the Yampa reached peak flows so long after peak flows on creeks. That the Yampa River flooded that area south of SB, but normal areas of flooding such as Holiday Inn parking lot were not flooded. 2011 made it clear that Walton Creek is what is responsible for that flooding.


mark hartless 1 year, 6 months ago

Besides, there are two sets of rules; one for gubbamint... and another for the rest of us.

If Fred had a man down in that pit without shoring he'd be writing uncle scam a check. Tied off has nothing to do with it.


mark hartless 1 year, 6 months ago

How 'bout it USFS???

Why do you guys think you can put an employee 12' down in an un-shored hole and ignore rules that I, Fred or many others would be expected to observe??

Should someone's job be in jeopardy here? Who authorized this use of time and limited taxpayer resources??

And what, other than a photo shoot, did this accomplish?

Government employees working by a different set of rules and digging themselves into a hole. What's new???


Scott Wedel 1 year, 6 months ago

Looks like OSHA is concerned with trenches and excavations involving soils.

Snow is above the dirt surface and a snow hole doesn't involve moving dirt.



mark hartless 1 year, 6 months ago

I guess it's kind of like "progressivism" the isn't it... we just find something that's already set up and working fine and take it over...


Fred Duckels 1 year, 6 months ago

Steve, OSHA regulates workplace safety and this was a foolhardy stunt. If they had any knowledge this picture would not be in circulation.


Chris Hadlock 1 year, 6 months ago

I am sure they will both fall over in shock, but I have to agree with Mark and Fred on this topic. If any private employer showed the public a picture with an employee in this situation, OSHA would be calling and quickly.

I am not sure I see any sense in one Gov't agency fining a different agency, but someone should sit these people down and discuss some basic safety issues. This picture clearly shows a dangerous stunt that should not have happened. That little safety rope was not going to help save Nick's life in the event of a sudden collapse.


mark hartless 1 year, 6 months ago

Maybe they should pay the fine to the first one who pointed out their stupidity. In this case Fred.


Bill Dalzell 1 year, 6 months ago

How come no one who is an expert in avalanche safety has a problem with this picture. I would think getting to the site is often more dangerous than standing in this pit. It would prove difficult to analyze snow pack in a "shored" hole. The only "stupidity" involved is in some of the comments. Fred, if you are truly worried about others safety, please start stopping at stop signs.


mark hartless 1 year, 6 months ago

"How come no one who is an expert in avalanche safety has a problem with this picture." Probably because most avalanche experts don't know OSHA and/or don't have a problem with goverment double standards.

It is difficult to lay sewer or water line in a shored hole too. Makes it way harder.

OSHA don't care how difficult it is.

When it's the private sector there are rules. When it's gubbamint...??


Fred Duckels 1 year, 5 months ago

Today in this liability conscious atmosphere the only way to solve the problem is to require plans and a P.E. stamp. On most major projects this is SOP, no one is willing to take the liability.


john bailey 1 year, 5 months ago

so , does today's snow count in the total ? we may have a shot at the snow fall contest.....yeah baby....~;0)


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