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Colorado’s avalanche safety program going strong at 40

Annual workshop highlights history of avalanche education, outreach and warnings, along with updates on weather and technical info

Colorado skiers and avalanche experts are revving up for the season, and the annual snow and avalanche workshop is always a big part of the preparation.

Avalanche deaths by state, 1950-2011. Graph courtesy CAIC.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Avalanches were a serious threat in Colorado’s mountains long before people started cruising through powder on skis and snowboards. Early pioneers, miners and railroaders all faced the White Death on a regular basis way more than 100 years ago, and during the state’s mining era, entire towns were wiped out by devastating slides.

But 40 years ago, snow experts started providing formal, science-based avalanche bulletins to the public with the formation of the Colorado Avalanche Warning Center. It was the birth of the modern avalanche safety program in the state and the precursor of today’s Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which will kick off the 40th year of forecasting with an all-start lineup at the annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop.

The one-day professional development event is aimed at  snow and avalanche professionals, including ski patrollers and backcountry guides, but is also of interest to the wider backcountry community, with talks on some of the latest science and the traditional ski season weather outlook.

This year’s CSAW is October 19 at the National Mining Hall of Fame in Leadville, Colorado. In addition to the CAIC, the meeting is co-sponsored by the Friends of the CAIC and The Summit Foundation.

Pre-registration for the workshop is open online at the CAIC website. Advance registration, available through Oct. 15, is $25, but it will cost you $40 if you wait to pay on the day of the workshop at the door.

Colorado’s avalanche forecasting program is the oldest in North America, and possibly the oldest anywhere outside of Europe, said CAIC director Ethan Greene. To explore the roots of the program, the workshop will include a talk by Art Judson, considered one of the “godfathers” of avalanche forecasting in the state. Judson will describe the early days, and former CAIC forecaster Nick Logan will follow up with a talk about the more recent years of the program.

Staying with the historical theme, Ray Mumford will discuss the state’s highway avalanche safety program, and Colorado state climatologist Nolan Doesken will give a talk on 40 years of snowfall stats.

Technical talks include information on some of the latest Avalauncher ammunition, as well as new research on the effects of explosives on different types of snow.

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Backcountry: Preseason party to benefit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and other winter nonprofits

Annual fundraiser features ski flick, raffle and ski expo

A large wet snow avalanche along I-70 between Frisco and Copper Mountain.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO —The buzz for the upcoming ski season will get a jolt this week, as Bent Gate Mountaineering hosts a ski season kickoff party benefiting the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and several other winter-oriented nonprofit groups.

The annual fundraiser is set for Sept. 27 at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden. Tickets are $20 at the door, including admission to a showing of the Oakley film, The Ordinary Skier, a ski expo with ski industry reps and backcountry organizations, silent auctions, and a killer gear giveaway including skis, beacons and bindings. Continue reading

Summit Voice: Most-viewed and week in review

Climate, avalanches and … cattle genetics?

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By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Global warming stayed at the top of the charts, but just barely. By late Sunday night, a science story on the genetic origins of domestic cattle was within a few page views and steadily climbing, thanks to a link from Fark.com. Stories on a pair of unfortunate backcountry skier deaths during the weekend, and coverage of the Lower North Fork Fire in Jefferson County rounded out this week’s most-viewed list. Click the headlines to read the stories and pass them along on your own favorite network with the share buttons at the end of each story.

Colorado: Backcountry skier dies on Buffalo Mountain

A Google maps view from directly above the summit of Buffalo Mountain shows the Silver Couloir as a deep cleave on the mountain's northeast flank.

Long slide ends in deadly collision with rocks

By Summit Voice

* Ipsen’s brother posted this account of the accident.

SUMMIT COUNTY — A 27-year-old man died Friday (March 30) on a popular backcountry ski run on Buffalo Mountain, near Silverthorne, Colorado, after sliding about 1,500 feet down the steep gully.

Jeff Ipsen, of Denver, was skiing the Silver Couloir with his brother and two friends when he apparently fell, eventually colliding with some rocks in the narrow gully.

According to the Summit County Coroner’s Office, Tim Brown, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center was skiing in the same area when the accident occurred. Brown said the accident was not the result of an avalanche.

According to the coroner’s office, 36 members of the Summit County Rescue Group were called to try and evacuate the injured skier and the rest of the party. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation was in progress when rescuers arrived on scene.  The cause of death is blunt force trauma.

The Summit County Rescue Group  was also assisted by Flight for Life Colorado, the Summit County Ambulance Service, and Lake Dillon Fire Rescue.

Skiing: Snowpack starts transition to spring conditions

Breckenridge Ski Patrol holds final avalanche talk of the season (March 15, Tenmile Room at the The Village at Breck) with a focus on spring avalanche risks and wet-snow slab instability

The 'Cirque' between Peak 6 and Peak 5...May 5, 2011. PHOTO BY MATT KRANE.

Public service avalanche presentation from the Breckenridge Ski Patrol.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The spring wet-snow avalanche season is starting early this year, thanks to a March warm-up, says Breckenridge ski patroller Matt Krane, warning that the recent spate of warm weather and winds may already be undermining the snowpack with meltwater percolating through the snowpack and lubricating already suspect layers.

A recent wet snow avalanche in Tenmile Canyon is a sure sign that some slopes are already subject to this type of release, and with low temperatures forecast to stay near the freezing mark even at mid-elevations, the problem could get worse before it gets better.

The same aspect one day later, May 6, 2011. Daytime temps in town were in the high 40s-low 50s. PHOTO BY MATT KRANE.

Continue reading

Colorado skiing: Test your avalanche search & rescue skills and some new gear at Arapahoe Basin’s annual Beacon Bowl

Pros and amateurs test their beacon skills; along with joining clinics and demos of new gear

Arapahoe Basin Beacon Bowl

A participant in the 2010 Beacon Bowl at Arapahoe Basin prepares to deploy a probe after locating a buried signal with an avalanche transceiver.

A beacon search during the A-Basin Beacon Bowl, 2010.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY —If you got a new avalanche beacon for Christmas but haven’t taken it out of the box yet, this coming weekend might be a good time to test it at the Feb. 11 Beacon Bowl at Arapahoe Basin.

The annual event is huge fundraiser for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and a chance to measure your beacon search skills in a competitive setting, with the adrenaline flowing — the follow up with ongoing practice sessions, because statistics show that rescue experts who practice on a regular basis are about twice as fast at finding and uncovering a buried victim than the average recreational user.

That’s critical in an avalanche rescue situation, because the odds of surviving a burial drop rapidly after the first 15 minutes, and outside help is unlikely to arrive within that that timespan after a backcountry slide.

“That 15 minutes goes by really fast,” said Dale Atkins, president of the American Avalanche Association. Continue reading

Backcountry to get spotlight at SIA Snow Show

Backcountry skiing and snowboarding will be featured at this winter's SIA Snow Show.

Safety & gear to be emphasized at the Backcountry Experience booth

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY —Backcountry skiing will take a turn at center stage during the 2012 Snow Show in Denver with a Backcountry Experience exhibit aimed at educating retailers on the latest in backcountry-specific products and safety practices, including daily beacon-search contests during the show.

“It’s incredibly exciting to see the amount of growth that freeriding, backcountry and splitboarding are experiencing,” said Jeremy Jomes. “Every season more and more riders are eager to push the traditional limits and explore deeper into the backcountry. The Backcountry Experience exhibit at the 2012 Snow Show will put the category front and center for the entire marketplace to see,” Jones said. Continue reading

Colorado: A little powder in the backcountry

Not a whole lot of snow in the Colorado high country, but enough for large slides like this one that partially buried a skier near Berthoud Pass. PHOTO COURTESY CAIC. Click on the image for more photos and the full report, including a video presentation.

Avalanche danger holding steady; isolated large slides still possible

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — After a quick spike in the backcountry avalanche danger late in the weekend, the new snow in most areas has settled and bonded reasonably well to the old surface, thanks in part to a warm start to the storm and relatively calm winds.

Overall, the avalanche danger is rated as moderate for all aspects near and above treeline. Natural avalanches are unlikely, while triggered avalanches are possible. Large avalanches are possible in isolated areas. Below treeline, the danger is rated as low with a slight chance of triggered slides in isolated spots. Continue reading

Three avalanche deaths in Montana

New snow and strong winds made for unstable conditions in the mountains around Cooke City. This side was triggered by a snowmobiler which resulted in a fatality. PHOTO COURTESY GALLATIN NATIONAL FOREST AVALANCHE CENTER/ JON MARSHALL. Click for more images.

New snow atop faceted base equals unstable snowpack

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Winter recreation turned deadly in the Rocky Mountains of Montana during the New Years weekend, as two snowmobilers and a backcountry skier died in separate avalanches, according to the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.

With a thick layer of faceted crystals near the ground, the avalanche hazard spiked Saturday after a snowstorm hit the northern Rockies, and powderhounds ventured out into the backcountry in search of fresh snow.

Similar conditions are likely to prevail in Colorado when the snow comes. Visit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center online for more info. Continue reading

Colorado: Backcountry avalanche danger is ‘considerable’

Faceted sugar snow, fresh windslab combine to make triggered releases likely on many slopes in the Summit-Vail area

Tricky avalanche conditions prevail in the backcountry.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — With clear and calm weather expected through the Christmas weekend and throngs of skiers and boarders expected in the high country, avalanche experts are warning  not to underestimate the dangers of  the thin and tricky early season snowpack in the backcountry.

The avalanche was rated as considerable as of late Wednesday, which means that triggered slides are likely and natural avalanches are possible.

“Small, human-triggered avalanches are likely in many areas,” in the Summit-Vail zone, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters wrote in their bulletin following the latest storm. And given the sparse snowpack, even a small avalanche could potentially step down to the ground and drag backcountry travelers through rocks and trees.

The most recent storm also brought easterly winds to the area, potentially loading areas that aren’t generally considered to be avalanche starting zones under the more prevalent westerlies. Fresh and brittle windslabs on east aspects are sitting atop unstable layers of faceted snow that offers almost no cohesion.

The most likely places to trigger avalanches are lee and cross-loaded slopes of more than 35 degrees, according to the CAIC.

With chilly temperatures expected to linger into Friday, the avalanche danger probably won’t subside much until later in the weekend.

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