Colorado's Backcountry Still Sliding

CAIC officials reported 260 avalanches in May and predict June could follow suit.
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By Leslie Hittmeier 

With more than 260 avalanches reported in the Colorado high country in May alone, search and rescue teams are preparing themselves for more to come in June. And the Colorado Avalanche Information Center warns that backcountry skiers in the area should be on point.

“May has been an interesting month as far as avalanches go,” says Scott Toepfer, a CAIC forecaster. “There is close to 70 more avalanches reported this May as opposed to the (same month for the) past four years.”

Part of that is because this April, Colorado entered a warm spell and the higher temps formed a nice crust layer on top of the snowpack. Pretty usual for spring, right? Yes, but what’s not usual is the amazing amount of snow that fell in May. 

The problem with all the May snow is that it came warm and wet, and it has yet to bind to the smooth April crust. Eventually the snowpack will bond, but first we need to see a good long freeze. 

“We are waiting on Mother Nature at this point,” Toepher says. “We are still getting avalanches reported daily, and some of them are huge.”

Just last weekend a snowboarder was swept 75 feet over a waterfall when he was caught in a wet slide on Buffalo Mountain in Summit County, Colorado. The victim broke his knee but was incredibly lucky to have survived. Another crew that was skiing on Loveland Pass, Sunday, saw a slide push a car off the highway.

“If you are still riding in the Colorado mountains this spring, you have to be thinking about avalanches,” Toepher says. “Bring your beacon, shovel, and probe, and ski all slopes one at a time.”

The other thing skiers need to be doing is be paying close attention to the overnight temps and cloud cover. If it’s cloudy overnight, the snow tends to stay wet, and that’s not good (the skiing will be crap too!). Same with temps that stay in the 40s overnight—it causes wet, heavy, avalanche-prone snow. If the temps stay warm and the snow doesn’t freeze, you can bet wet slides will be an issue. To help avoid that, get an early morning start and be drinking a beer in the parking lot by 10 a.m.

“It’s complex right now,” Toepher says. “But if you just pay attention to cloud cover and temperature, you should be able to make a good decision on whether or not to go big in the backcountry.”

Check the CAIC’s website in advance to see if the snow froze overnight in the zone you’re considering. And besides calling 911 as needed, if you’re in the backcountry and witness an avalanche, report it here.

Related

Driving on I-70 between the mega-resorts of Copper Mountain and Vail you crest 10,600-foot, Vail Pass, which gets a ton of snow because of it’s elevation and location right in the middle of the state. The west side of the highway is a popular spot for snowmobile use, as well as a starting point for some 10th Mountain Division Huts. The east side of the highway is a haven for human-powered ski touring.  Uneva Peak, at 12,520, is a perfect objective for a first visit to Vail Pass. The grade to the summit is relaxed, and 2,000 vertical feet of elevation gain is realistic for most weekend warriors. There are abundant slopes on which to play depending on weather, avalanche danger, and motivation levels. The south and west slopes are good for basic decision making, but the north and east are a bit more complicated.  To get there, follow I-70 to Vail Pass, and park on the west side of the highway. There is a ranger station, and day use will cost $6 per person. Chat with the rangers, get a handle on current conditions, and feel good about where your money is going. Cross the overpass and start skinning right at the summer trailhead.  

Backcountry Destinations: Colorado

As touring gear gets more sophisticated and bomber, backcountry skiing is gaining popularity across the country. But, for a variety of very good reason, it can be intimidating. And finding appropriate entry-level trips can be hard. To help make the transition to touring, we’ve got some beta to get you started. Each month, Donny Roth, owner of Alpine Ambitions, will share a few destinations that are great starting points for skiers looking to get out and explore. The first installment is from Colorado, check back soon for ideas from other states.