Skiing: Backcountry snowpack touchy in Colorado

Monthly Breckenridge ski patrol talk to focus on backcountry travel techniques and terrain choices

There's plenty of good backcountry powder skiing in Summit County, but it's best to stay on low-angle terrain right now, like this 28-degree slope on Baldy, Photo courtesy Matt Krane.

There’s plenty of good backcountry powder skiing in Summit County, but it’s best to stay on low-angle terrain right now, like this 28-degree slope on Baldy, Photo courtesy Matt Krane.

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CAIC forecaster Tim Brown examines the crown face of a large avalanche in Montezuma Bowl, at Arapahoe Basin. Photo courtesy CAIC.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — With forecasters warily eying backcountry avalanche hazards and more snow on the way this week, Breckenridge ski patrollers will focus on safe backcountry travel techniques, route-finding and terrain selection during their monthly talk this Thursday evening (Village at Breckenridge, Tenmile Room, 6 p.m.).

The topic is especially timely following recent close calls and a cycle of natural slides in the backcountry, said Breckenridge ski patroller Matt Krane. Last week, a party of four backcountry travelers were involved with a sizable slide on Peak 6.

“We were poised to respond to until their cell phone call stood us down,” Krane said, adding that the large post-control avalanche in A-Basin’s Montezuma Bowl shows that, even after explosives mitigation work, this season’s weak layers persist.

“When you add all of this to the backcountry equation where there is limited to almost no previous skier compaction, let alone explosives mitigation, safe backcountry travel techniques and terrain selection can only be counted on after careful assessment of the snowpack,” Krane said.

Members of the Breckenridge Ski Patrol’s Snow Safety team and avalanche technicians will provide a lively lecture, supported by great visuals, as always, Krane said. The Breck Street Team will be collecting food donations at the door the benefit the Family and Intercultural Resource Center.

On many favored backcountry ski slopes in the Vail-Summit area, the avalanche danger is rated as considerable, with natural releases possible and triggered slides likely on north through east through south aspects near and above treeline.

Forecasters describe the snowpack as “sensitive … highly variable and complicated with several persistent weak layers throughout the snowpack. Cautious route-finding and a wide margin for error are required for safe backcountry travel, CAIC forecasters said in their Tuesday afternoon update.

The most recent snow has been redeposited into thick and discontinuous slabs, making it easy to move from relatively safe to very dangerous terrain within a few steps. The CAIC listed examples of a few recent avalanches to highlight the danger:

  • A natural hard slab avalanche ran near the Eisenhower Tunnel on an above-treeline, 35 degree, north facing slope. The crown was 2-3 feet deep, only 25 feet across, but it ran around 250 vertical feet.
  • Sunday on Mt. Guyot a sizable avalanche ran on an above-treeline northeast-facing slope. The slide either ran naturally or was remotely triggered from skiers further down the slope.
  • A skier-triggered slide just out of bounds at Keystone
  • A skier-triggered slide near Vail Pass from Saturday
  • A large avalanche on the backside of A-Basin
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