Whoa?! What a winter! Seems like just about every range in the West has been getting pounded with snow for the last month and a half. Hopefully you’ve been getting after it? Only thing better than record breaking Nov/Dec snow fall is a record breaking number of faceshots before the New Year.
The early onslaught of snow has not been without it’s tragedies however. There have been three avalanche deaths in the U.S. thus far this season. The first death occurred Nov. 22 at Wolf Creek Ski Area in SW Colorado, the second Nov. 27 in the Uinta Mountains along the Utah/Wyoming border and the third on Dec 5th near Loveland Ski Area in Colorado. While the circumstances behind each of these accidents was different, the common denominator between all three was that the avalanches ran on weak early-season snow layers and entrained snow from multiple storms – not just fresh storm snow.
Hard Slab avalanche caused by Depth Hoar – February 2010 – Photo by Teton Search and Rescue
If you’re an avid backcountry skier the only way to guard against falling victim to persistent weak layers or direct action avalanches is to diligently pay attention to the local snowpack by making observations yourself and tuning into the avy forecasts in your region. No doubt you’ve heard this advice before and hopefully you’ve taken some avy training to understand what the forecasts mean, but how often do you read every word of the avy bulletin let alone dig a pit?
I’m just as guilty as anyone so i’ve decided to make it one of my New Year’s resolutions to dig a bunch more pits and read more of the bulletin than just the big highlighted words at the top of the forecast. To inspire all of you to do the same i’ve collected a brief rundown of the lurking dangers found in the mountain ranges of the Unofficial Network going into the New Year. There were 36 avalanche fatalities in the U.S. last year. Read up, bookmark these links and don’t die a statistic.
Cup Shaped Depth Hoar – Photo by Mark Moore of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center
Colorado – North San Juan:
Overall danger – Considerable. It remains possible for people to trigger very large avalanches. The North San Juan had one of the weaker snowpacks across the state prior to the recent big storm. We are heading into a period where avalanches will be infrequent but high consequence. – Forecaster Scott Toepfer, 12/27/2010
Wyoming – Teton Area
Overall danger – Low. The snowpack is mostly stable below 10,500 feet. At the upper elevations, near ridge tops and below cliff bands isolated pockets of new soft slabs to 8 inches in depth could be released by backcountry travellers. The wind-drifted pockets rest on slick sun crusts or surface hoar. – Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center, 12/27/2010
Overall danger – High/Considerable. Avalanche danger lingers at HIGH in the Sea-to-Sky corridor. Travel in Avalanche Terrain is not recommended. Isolated large avalanches have been occurring with heavy triggers on slopes with smooth ground cover. Local avalanche professionals have low confidence in this problem and are calling it a little spooky. – Canadian Avalanche Center,12/26/2010
Utah – Salt Lake City
Overall danger – Low. Most terrain has a Level 1 (LOW) avalanche danger. If you are getting in to more radical terrain with slopes pushing 40 degrees, this is the most likely spot to trigger a wind slab today. Easterly aspects, especially along ridges, with slopes approaching 40 degrees have a pockety Level 2 (MODERATE) danger. – Forecaster Brett Kobernik, 12/27/2010
Sierra – Tahoe
Overall danger – Moderate. The significant wind transport of snow and subsequent wind loading that occurred from mid day Saturday through last night has created widespread wind slabs. In most areas these slabs are stable, but lingering pockets of instability likely exist. Southwest to west winds have deposited snow in lee areas, often well below ridgelines. Areas of complex terrain on N-NE-E-SE aspects are the most suspect. – Forecaster Brandon Schwartz, 12/27/10