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Backcountry avy danger high as more storms take aim, more ski area terrain opens

December 21, 2020, 8:32 am
Vail’s Back Bowls opened on Saturday (Vail Resorts photo).

Vail and Beaver Creek opened significantly more skiable terrain over the weekend after a snowy 10-day period, including the Back Bowls at Vail, and more snow is in the forecast for this week. But state officials are warning of dangerous avalanche conditions in the Colorado backcountry.

“This team moves mountains – and today, the first of our Legendary Back Bowls opened!” Vail Mountain tweeted on Saturday. “Huge shout out to the mountain operations team, for working to safely operate during a pandemic, and battle through difficult early season snow fall.”

It’s been a relatively slow start to the 2020-21 ski season so far, but steady snowfall since the night of Dec. 10 has dramatically improved conditions locally.

“Terrain alert! Rose Bowl and Larkspur open today, and lifts now open at 8:30 a.m.,” Beaver Creek Resort tweeted on Saturday. “Following more than 2 feet of snow in the past week, we now have skiing and riding available across more than 950 acres!”

More snow is in the forecast for the middle of the week.

“Monday and Tuesday will be mostly dry and warmer. The next storm will bring snow Tuesday night through Wednesday with 1-6 inches of accumulation.” Opensnow.com meteorologist Joel Gratz wrote Monday morning. “Wednesday’s turns could be soft and temperatures will be cold.”

Then an even snowier pattern is expected for the beginning of 2021.

“Following a few dry days, snow will return on Sunday, Dec 27, and multiple storms could move through Colorado during the week of New Years,” Gratz added.

But conditions are clearly very dangerous in Colorado’s backcountry after three skiers died over the weekend. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which as of Monday morning had rated avalanche danger in the Vail/Summit County region as “considerable,” issued the following press release on Sunday:

CO Avalanche Info Center urges extra care

Three people killed in two days linked to unusually dangerous avalanche conditions

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center is urging people headed to the mountains to exercise extra care in the mountains and pay special attention to the avalanche forecast.

“Since Friday three Coloradans lost their lives in avalanche accidents, and 132 avalanches were reported. One hundred and eight avalanches were triggered by people in the last week” said Ethan Greene, Director, Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “More people die in avalanches in Colorado than any other state, and this year conditions are especially dangerous. This is not the landscape-changing event we saw in March of 2019, but it is the weakest snowpack we’ve seen since 2012. People need to recognize we have unusual conditions and their usual practices may not keep them out of harm’s way. As we gain more snow in the coming weeks, avalanches could become even more dangerous. We urge everyone to check the avalanche forecast before you plan your day in the mountains (www.colorado.gov/avalanche), particularly as we enter the holiday season.”

Here are the numbers.

In the last week:

  • 380 avalanches reported
  • 108 triggered by people

Since Friday

  • 132 avalanches
  • 49 triggered by people
  • 9 people have been caught in avalanches
  • 3 people were killed in avalanches 

Why is this important? 

There have been a lot of avalanches and a lot of people are getting caught in them. The snowpack is below average across the state. Avalanches are mostly small, but very easy to trigger. This week, we have seen avalanches grow in size and they are going to continue to get bigger as the mountains get more snow. 

We have avalanches every year, why is this different?

Colorado is the home of weak snow and avalanches are not uncommon. This year is worse. We haven’t seen conditions this bad since 2012. Although the avalanche conditions are not unprecedented, they are worse than many people are used to. People are using avalanche-safety strategies that have worked in recent years, but current conditions require additional caution.

What can you do?

The most important thing you can do is check the avalanche forecast before you go into the backcountry. Go to www.colorado.gov/avalanche or get the Friends of CAIC’s mobile app. Look at the current avalanche conditions and plan accordingly. Steep slopes where the snow supports your weight are dangerous. Avalanches are easy to trigger. They can break wider than you expect. You can trigger avalanches from low-angle terrain, below or to the side of a steep slope. If you’re unsure about the conditions, stay on slopes less than 30 degrees steep that are not connected to steeper terrain.

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