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Colorado: Avalanche danger ramps up with new snow, wind

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There’s already a layer of unstable faceted snow crystals at the base of the snowpack, potentially setting up avalanche hazards in the backcountry. Bob Berwyn photo.

Avalanche awareness classes being offered all around the state

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO —There haven’t been any avalanche accidents yet this season in the Summit County backcountry, but avalanche control work around Loveland Pass triggered several slides that broke all the way to the ground and ran considerable distances, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

More than a foot of new snow combined with steady west-northwest winds have quickly ramped the backcountry avalanche danger up into the high end of the warning scale across most of Colorado’s northern and central mountains.

This season’s snowpack is starting out almost as poorly as last winter’s when snowslides claimed seven lives in Colorado. With skiers and riders eager to get out and sample some of the fresh powder, avy pros emphasize that education and awareness are the key to safe travel in the backcountry.

Along with early season turns, this is the time of year to take advantage of some of the many classes offered around the state, including a Dec. 13 Mountain Weather and Avalanches class at REI in Denver and an Alpine World Ascents two-day class (Dec. 13 & 14) that includes one day in Boulder and one day in the Berthoud Pass backcountry.

There’s another level 1 class in Aspen Dec. 15, and a Summit County class next Monday, Dec. 17, at the Frisco Senior and Community Center.

Check the CAIC calendar for a full schedule of classes. The knowledge could come in handy immediately ,as outside the San Juans and the Grand Mesa, the avalanche danger is already classified as “considerable” at the higher elevations of all other Colorado mountain zones, where natural slides are possible and triggered slides are likely.

Fresh storm slabs and wind slabs will continue to be a problem the next few days, requiring careful route-finding and evaluation of the snowpack. The shallow snow that persisted before the recent snowfall deteriorated to non-cohesive sugar snow, and backcountry travelers are reporting classic signs of instability, including whumpfing sounds and cracking in the surface layers.

Triggered slabs (up to two feet deep) could step down to result in significant slides, with the greatest hazard on slopes steeper than 30 degrees near and above treeline and facing north though northeast to east.

Now’s the time to brush up on avalanche safety skills, including snowpack and terrain evaluation, route-finding and beacon search skills, with numerous classes scheduled around the state during the next several weeks.

Most of the upcoming classes are listed online at the CAIC’s education web page. The listed classes includes events where at least one CAIC staff member is teaching or all of the instructors have been certified by the American Avalanche Association or trained by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.

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