For many regions in the U.S., winter has officially – and anatomically – hit. Following reports of 30 to 40 inches of fresh snow in multiple Colorado resorts, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) has formally issued warnings urging backcountry athletes to decrease outdoor activity for the coming days.
While not a complete warning, the CAIC has broadcasted an avalanche advisory for large portions of the state. Northwest, north, and northeastern facing slopes are in particular danger to the public since they currently still hold snow from October snowfalls, which have consequently created an especially weak base layer for activity.
“I don’t think we’ll get to warning criteria, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous,” CAIC deputy director Brian Lazar recently said. “We want people to be aware that it’s touchy out there.”
Due to the recent heavy snow and high winds, above tree line slopes are experiencing severe wind loading – so severe that there is potential for up to two-foot thick slab avalanches, according to Summit Daily. And because of west-to-east winds, eastern facing slopes are especially in danger.
“Right now, even a small slide would be a pretty nasty ride because you’re going to get dragged along the ground,” Lazar said.
Lazar further noted that concealed debris, like downed trees and barely covered rocks, hide just below tree line, possibly becoming dangerous to an unwary athlete who’s trekking down.
The lack of a substantial base in the snowpack – defined as a mass of snow that is hardened by its own weight – additionally raises concern.
“This is our first real test of weak layers and they’re not inspiring a lot of confidence,” Lazar said, referring to the northern sides and wind-loaded areas.
For the long haul, however, the amount of snow that’s recently hit the state is actually good for the snowpack.
When snow falls later in the year and the weather stays cold, the snow often creates a more solid snowpack for years to come. For the past two years, the state saw early snowfall followed by long periods of warm temperature, thus creating an avalanche-prone unstable base.
But the late arriving of snow this year may possibly weaken the probability of an avalanche come winter and spring.
“It’s a really good start,” Lazar said. “There’s a lot of new snow; we’re all psyched to see it.”
“We just need a few more storms,” Lazar added. “I don’t think this by itself is going to do it.”
For now though, the CAIC is advising that athletes approach all terrain with caution and currently stick to slopes below 30 degrees.