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Colorado: Backcountry skier dies in San Juan avalanche

Spring conditions lead to large wet snow slides



By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The Colorado Avalanche Information Center is reporting the seventh avalanche death of the 2011-2012 season, as a backcountry skier was caught and killed in wet snow slide near Ophir Pass in the San Juans.

The accident occurred March 30 on an east-southeast aspect high above treeline in a well-known slide path. According to preliminary reports, the slide fractured about 24-inches deep and 550-feet across, and ran down a steep gully for almost 2,000 feet in an area known as Upper Paradise Basin.

CAIC investigators said they will visit the site Saturday to compile a full report. The preliminary report says the slide happened at about 4 p.m.

Wet snow avalanches frequently run in the spring during warm cycles in the weather, as melted snow percolates through the snowpack, lubricating harder layers below the surface.

Overall, the avalanche danger in the North San Juans was rated as moderate for the day, with a warning that the snowpack was susceptible to rapid destabilization in the afternoon under the influence of warm temps and sunshine. As well, a layer of dust on the snow was expected to speed melting.

From the March 30 conditions report:

“Deep persistent weak layers remain a concern on shady, high elevation steep slopes facing northwest through north to east. These deep slabs are difficult to initiate, but if you trigger an avalanche, it would be large and destructive.”


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Colorado: Skier buried, suffers broken ribs in avalanche near Vail; ‘considerable’ slide danger persists in the backcountry

A slabby and fragile snowpack prevails in much of the Colorado backcountry. PHOTO COURTESY CAIC.

Triggered slides remain likely near and above treeline

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Considerable avalanche danger persists in the Colorado backcountry, where a skier this week was completely buried and suffered six broken ribs and a collapsed lung in a slide near Vail.

Forecasters with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said the skier triggered the soft slab by jumping off a cliff on a north aspect hear Mushroom Bowl. His partners were able to uncover him from the slide that broke about 30 inches deep, 100 feet wide and ran about 380 vertical feet.

Another skier triggered yet another slide nearby while CAIC experts were on-site investigating the first avalanche. In the Tenmile Range, another slide was triggered by a falling cornice, illustrating the continued potential for natural slides. More information at the CAIC accidents web page.

With the backcountry avalanche danger rated as “considerable” triggered releases are still likely in many areas, specifically on northwest through south aspects near and above treeline.

Up to 12 inches of snow fell across much of the Vail-Summit zone fell since Monday, adding stress to a slabby snowpack riddled with weak layers. Check the CAIC forecast before heading into the backcountry.

Colorado: Backcountry avalanche danger persists

Numerous slides reported from the Vail-Summit and Front Range mountains

Beautiful tracks in a dangerous spot.

SUMMIT COUNTY — A few days of sunny and relatively warm conditions haven’t eased the backcountry avalanche danger by much, according to forecasters with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

The hazard is rated as considerable in nearly all the mountains of Colorado — with the exception of the south San Juans. With dense slabs sitting atop a weak base of faceted sugar snow, natural slides are still likely in some spots, and backcountry travelers can easily trigger avalanches by hitting weak spots in the snowpack

Careful snowpack evaluation, cautious route-finding and conservative decision-making are all required for safe travel in the backcountry, according to the CAIC’s latest bulletin. Continue reading

Colorado: Backcountry avalanche watch issued

Snow Thursday night could set off another natural avalanche cycle

Parts of the Colorado mountains are under an avalanche watch. Click for more info.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — A round of forecast snow — perhaps 4 to 10 inches Thursday night — could unleash another cycle of dangerous, naturally running backcountry avalanches, Colorado snow safety experts said, issuing an avalanche watch that covers the Front Range and mountains to the west from Fairplay up to Steamboat Springs.

Four people have died in avalanches this season, including two at ski areas. Get the latest backcountry update at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website.

An avalanche watch means that, if the weather forecast is accurate, the avalanche danger will rise to high in the watch area, with both natural and triggered slides likely. The watch is in effect through 11 a.m. Friday. A high danger rating means very dangerous backcountry avalanche conditions, and travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended. Specifically, the warning covers the Park Elkhead, Flattop, Front, Gore and Tenmile ranges. Continue reading

Backcountry avalanche warning in Colorado

Avalanche danger is high across much of the Colorado high country.

Natural and triggered slides likely in the mountains

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Most mountain backcountry areas in Colorado are under an avalanche warning Sunday after more than 12 inches of new snow brought a sketchy early season snowpack to the tipping point.

Forecasters with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center say that a widespread cycle of natural and triggered avalanches is likely. Backcountry travelers will easily trigger slides on most aspects and elevations and avalanches will also be easily triggered from a distance of 100 feet or more.

The avalanche danger is in the red zone, rated as high, in all mountain areas but the Sawatch and south San Juans, where it’s rated as considerable.

From the Summit County warning:

“The largest avalanches will occur on slopes facing north through east to southeast near and above treeline. Widespread but smaller avalanches are likely on all other slopes.”

The CAIC has listed reports of 15 avalanches since Jan. 19, including two in the Loveland Pass area and several more from East Vail to the Shrine Pass area. More info at the CAIC website.

Colorado: CAIC reports first avalanche death of season

Sidecountry rider caught in slide in sidecountry near Snowmass Ski Area

Much of the Colorado backcountry is prone to dangerous avalanches.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The Colorado Avalanche Information Center is reporting that the first avalanche death of the season occurred Thursday, Jan. 18 in the sidecountry, near Snowmass.

The slide reportedly happened on Burnt Mountain, just to the east and outside the Snowmass Ski Area, where the terrain is generally northeast-facing. According to the first report posted on the CAIC website, the avalanche was described as a small slide that ran into a gully or terrain trap. Continue reading

Colorado: Avalanche danger rises in the backcountry

Triggered avalanches are likely on many slopes in the Colorado backcountry.

Triggered slides likely on many slopes

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Snowfall and wind have combined to push the backcountry snowpack in Colorado to the tipping point, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, where forecasters issued an avalanche advisory valid through 10 a.m. Tuesday morning.

Across much of the state, the avalanche danger is rated as considerable, with natural avalanches possible and triggered avalanches likely on many steep slopes, including below treeline. Backcountry travelers will also see remotely triggered slides and experience signs of instability, including cracks and collapsing slabs. It will be possible to trigger avalanches from lower-angle slopes well below the starting zones. 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.

Colorado’s peaks can be deadly when weather turns

Kim Fenske hikes Bierstadt and talks mountain weather

Ptarmigan changing plumage from summer to winter blend in well in snow-flecked grass.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

When the forecast is for unstable weather, hiking into a remote base camp and planning an ascent of a mountain with severe grades on unmarked slopes or exposed ledges is not a reasonable plan. It’s difficult enough to predict lightning storms in summer when summit strikes threaten. Sudden snowstorm can create white-outs in high winds on high altitude ascents and create slippery conditions for boulder scrambles.

During the spring and summer of 2011, the first four deaths on Fourteeners involved snow conditions. None of the mountains where these death happened are considered easy or moderate ascents on standard hike routes.

Torreys Peak killed a skier who triggered an avalanche in a snowstorm so severe that rescuers were unable to reach the scene by helicopter. A woman slipped down a snow-covered chute during an ascent of Mount Princeton in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area. On nearby Missouri Mountain, a father and daughter who were experienced hikers fell from the ridge near the standard approach and were found several days after they were killed.  By contrast, the eleven climbers killed in 2010 near a Fourteener summit were on the most difficult sixteen of the fifty-four peaks and often on non-standard routes. Continue reading

Colorado: A fall hike on Castle Peak

Guidebook author Kim Fenske shares trail beta and photos from a Colorado classic

Aspen's famed Maroon Bells, seen from the Castle Peak area.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

Castle Peak is a majestic fortress, diminished only by the magnificent company it keeps. Since the more renowned peaks of Maroon, North Maroon, Pyramid, and Snowmass lie close at hand, Castle Peak rests in relative peace.

From Summit County, Castle Peak Trailhead is a hundred miles away. Climb over Independence Pass, drop through Aspen, and turn from the roundabout to Castle Creek Road. Castle Creek Road leads to a jeep road that is the beginning of a six-mile ascent to the summit of Castle Peak. The abandoned silver mining town of Ashcroft is nestled among aspen meadows on Castle Creek Road, ten miles below the remains of the Montezuma-Tam O’Shanter Mine. Continue reading


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