Here in Colorado, Avy Danger in the Red Zone

Post by blogger | December 23, 2010      

We’ve been measuring our high country snow in feet rather than inches during a storm flow that’s been going on for days now. The big white pile is coming in dense and wet, in places overloading a weaker midpack. According to Aspen and Crested Butte avalanche websites, large naturals are occurring with regularity. Danger has been rated in the red (High, level 4) for two days now, for all aspects and elevations.

Snowpit work, avalanche danger evaluation.

We did two pits at 8,760 feet, northerly. In both we were pulling out contiguous blocks to the ground. All layers were well bonded. While just the big amount of new snow within the past 48 hours would cause me to not ski any big lines at this elevation, a pit like this is a contradiction of the 'High' rating that we're seeing in the avy reports, for all elevations and aspects. Goes to show, pits can be quite confusing and even misleading. You have to go with all the signs.

Having read the avy reports and figuring a bunch of stuff had slid (see our Avalanche Hotlines list), we figured we’d take an avalanche tour yesterday and drove up to the McClure Pass and Marble, Colorado to see what the big ones had done. Funny thing was, we saw very little evidence of avalanche activity. We could tell some of the larger paths had slid earlier in the storm (an avalanche blocked the Marble Quarry road last weekend, and one skier was reported to have been caught and self rescued). But nada for fresh slides yesterday. Most everything was just hanging up there.

It’s always strange when field observations don’t corroborate avalanche forecasts (it’s axiomatic during a “High” rating that you’ll see evidence of numerous natural avalanches) . Only sane conclusion is that all the snow which hasn’t slid is just waiting up there for a few more feet or inches of snow weight, then it’s all going to come crashing down in the most apocalyptic avalanche cycle we’ll see in our lifetimes. It’s raining outside our door this morning, thus snowing hard up high. So could happen.

Meanwhile, I think we’ll just have to ski some safe zones (short, low angled, timber). Or skin up the resort. Or do a flat tour and just groove on how the forests around here are looking like the Pacific Northwest.

Snowpit for backcountry skiing avalanche safety.

We were both amazed at how dense the snow was for Colorado, December. In all my years in Colorado I've never seen a pit like this in mid winter.


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12 Responses to “Here in Colorado, Avy Danger in the Red Zone”

  1. ed December 23rd, 2010 10:45 am

    The North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale definition of “High” includes these comments:
    “Natural Avalanches likely; human-triggered avalanches very likely.”
    “Large avalanches in many areas; or very large avalanches in specific areas.”

    Sounds about right for what you describe, and one profile site doesn’t necessarily tell all, of course.

  2. Mike Suhrbier December 23rd, 2010 10:55 am

    Hey Lou,

    Just a quick note on Marble slides.
    I’ve been up there everyday of this storm except Tuesday poking around and watching the snow fall. There have been numerous large slides from Marble peak all the way down the ridge to the Carbonates. Only a few hit the road, most stopped short, but the debris is obvious in many of the common runout zones. I was lucky enough to be up there when one of the big slides hit the road Monday evening. Most everything ran Monday night so the evidence has been covered by the subsequent 4′ of snow that fell. Please don’t post this, I just wanted to pass some of my observations on to you.

    Take care,


  3. Newman December 23rd, 2010 11:14 am

    Hey newskool, is that what the “pros” do – ignore avalanche forecasts, forego digging pits, and just “ob” and “bc” it until they’re killed? Sarcasm missed if that’s what you were going for, but you chose the wrong place to advocate this brand of flippancy. I’d guess for many of the visitors to this site that a big part of the experience is understanding and working with the conditions, not ignoring. “Wusses?” Come on…

  4. newskool December 23rd, 2010 10:47 am

    Big snow doesn’t always mean big avalanches. With all the moisture in the air (around aspen)and a dense snowpack, it is about being like the top pros and getting after it ! We have been charging the ob for days and will be throwing down again tomorrow (maybe a maroon bowl/ tonar combo.) I moved here from tahoe 2 years ago and feel like I traveled back in time. It is hard to believe there are any pros around here. Welcome to the future of ob and bc – don’t be such big wusses.

  5. GR December 23rd, 2010 11:52 am

    Newman, don’t be trolled…..

    Thanks for the obs guys. Stay safe out there everyone.

  6. Chris B December 23rd, 2010 12:18 pm

    I think one of the things I like most about this blog is that when avy conditions are bad, you say that you might just do a flat tour, breaking out some skinny nordic backcountry type boards (i added that bit). Its all about the tour! Being out in the snow is fun.

  7. Newman December 23rd, 2010 12:28 pm

    Yeah, busted GR.

  8. MVA December 23rd, 2010 12:58 pm

    “Or do a flat tour and just groove on how the forests around here are looking like the Pacific Northwest.”

    hehe, no kidding. I like it for a bit of change without having to travel anywhere. Pretty neato.

    Now for the snow pack…. my understanding of this type of pack as well as the temperatures associated with it is that at first we’ll have a crapload of loading on the top of the normal mid-continental faceting pack from our chilly and dry blower pow that we’re all used to but that as the warm temps stick around and the high H2O content stuff keeps dropping we’ll see more uniformity in the pack. The warm temps (above freezing at vail pass and the tunnel this week) will have the pack consolidating. I have no idea how fast this can happen. I wonder if it were to get sunny next week if we’d be able to ski PNW corn? 😉

    Postulating here….. if this dumpage were to consolidate somewhat with the old pack it’d make for a more stable platform and may be why your snowpits look as they do. That said, if the heavy stuff goes and it rips all the underlying faceted layers with it to the ground it’d make for one gnarly hard slap release. Ewwww yucky. Also this may provide a stable platform from which (hopefully) we’ll see more CO-pixie-dust land upon and gives us a great winter in the BC

    I love snow science….need to learn more!!!!!!!!!!!! 🙂

  9. Njord December 23rd, 2010 1:02 pm

    I think Maroon Bowl should be “G2G” since it already slid once this week! Get after it!

  10. Brian Hessling December 23rd, 2010 4:07 pm

    “apocalyptic avalanche cycle”…dig it…Ullr roars!

  11. RK December 24th, 2010 8:58 am

    Global warming rocks!

  12. Lou December 24th, 2010 2:54 pm

    Just back from two days in the true OB (not lift accessed). More pits. Observed one fracture line more than a mile long that looked like it occurred within the past 48 hours. Conclusion is that danger is elevation dependent, and things may be stabilizing very quickly due to the deep dense snow. Similar to what happens around Tahoe. Out again in a few hours.

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