FRONT RANGE, Colo. – The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued a rare “extreme” avalanche warning for the Gunnison zone of the Colorado Rocky Mountains after heavy snowfall in the past two weeks.
The CAIC says there have already been 15 reported avalanches on Wednesday alone. Most of them were naturally-caused. There were 12 reported Tuesday.
The extreme avalanche conditions accompany avalanche warnings that are in place for much of Colorado’s mountain regions, and means that people should avoid any terrain prone to avalanches in the area.
The Aspen, Steamboat & Flat Tops and Front Range regions all remain under avalanche warnings until Friday morning, though they are under “high” avalanche conditions – one step below “extreme.”
The Vail & Summit County and Sawatch zones also remain under “high” avalanche conditions, though they are only under avalanche watches, not warnings.
The Grand Mesa and Northern and Southern San Juan regions remain under “considerable” avalanche conditions.
Winter storms have dumped feet of snow across Colorado’s mountains over the past week, including about 90 inches in the Crested Butte area.
Arapahoe Basin was forced to close Tuesday because of avalanche danger and mitigation on nearby Loveland Pass. It reopened Wednesday afternoon, but with limited ski offerings. Monarch was also closed earlier this week because of avalanche concerns.
Backcountry travel and skiing is discouraged during these high-risk times, but if you have to head out into avalanche danger zones, it’s important to be prepared with the right gear, or it could cost you your life.
AVALANCHE INFORMATION/SAFETY CLASSES
People who plan on traveling in avalanche areas, especially while snowshoeing, skiing or snowboarding, should be prepared to do so.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center teaches a free avalanche awareness program, called “Know Before You Go,” which teaches people how to be safe when traveling in the backcountry. It also has a website dedicated to avalanche and backcountry awareness and safety.
Some outdoors stores, such as REI, also offer avalanche safety classes.
AVALANCHE AND BACKCOUNTRY GEAR
Also important is having the correct backcountry and avalanche gear. It can cost a pretty penny, but is essential for safety and required in most backcountry ski areas. The gear isn’t guaranteed to save your life in an avalanche, but greatly increases your chances of survival should you be caught in one.
Avalanche transceivers or beacons are a must-have, and send out electronic or GPS signals should someone get buried by an avalanche.
People should also bring collapsible snow shovels and probes in order to test the snowpack, and to find and dig out anyone who may get buried.
Using both the transceiver and snowpack testing materials often require extensive training before a person uses them in the backcountry.
Perhaps the next-most important piece of avalanche/backcountry gear you should invest in is an avalanche airbag.
The bags look like a small backpack, but contain an airbag and compressed air. If someone is caught in an avalanche, they can pull a ripcord similar to those on parachutes that will inflate the airbag in order to protect people’s heads and bodies and hopefully keep them on the upper surface of the avalanche.
Some backcountry manufacturers also make breathing packs with either snorkels or masks that can be used by people in avalanches so they don’t suffocate, which is often the cause of death for people trapped in avalanches.
There are other radio frequency boosters, snow saws and snowpack meters that can be used to scope out possible avalanche zones or boost beacons for ski patrollers to find people involved in avalanche.
Most ski areas do avalanche mitigation with cannons or other means before they open for the day. If avalanche patrols find areas that are possibly hazardous, they will typically close down those areas for the day.
People wondering about avalanche conditions in Colorado’s backcountry and ski areas should always consult the Colorado Avalanche Information Center before heading out, and should always let others know where they plan to go and when they plan to be back.