A Few San Juan Avalanche Images

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | January 30, 2012      

By Chris Blatter

Lou and all, here are some avalanche images from down here in the San Juan Mountains, Colorado. The first image was taken 4PM Saturday 1/28 from CR#35 below McMillan Pass looking west up Prospect Basin. My pals skinning with me saw it run but alas I was breaking trail and saw/photographed it two minutes later. Good example of a smaller “pocket” avalanche that could catch you if you weren’t paying attention to route finding.

Ski touring and backcountry skiing in Colorado San Juans.

Avalanche in Prospect Basin, Colorado.

Snow avalanche in San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Tighter shot of the slide.

The third image, below, was taken 2 PM Sunday. This one slid sometime late afternoon Sat or Sun AM. Looking towards the East aspect of Red Mountain.

Avalanche on Red Mountain, San Juans Colorado.

Avalanche on Red Mountain, San Juans, Colorado.


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25 Responses to “A Few San Juan Avalanche Images”

  1. Susan January 31st, 2012 11:17 am

    Nice photos…glad no one was caught in them. It is so important to learn about snow pack and route planning. Especially when the conditions report moderate to considerable danger. Anyone in the backcountry should have taken a AIARE class or similar….knowledge could save your life. Thanks for posting the photos Lou!

  2. Lou January 31st, 2012 11:47 am

    You’re welcome Susan. Thanks Chris for sending them over. Lou

  3. SanJuanSkier January 31st, 2012 12:27 pm

    It’s been a rough year in the San Juans (as well as everywhere else). Right before the NY we cut looses a 6ft hardslab (cornice block) to lookers left of the 3rd image. The decent storms in December followed by subzero temps and 100mph+ winds left widespread hard slabs on a layer of fairly deep ground facets on most every exposed aspect.

    Unfortunately these big hard slabs are now buried by more snow, things are still tender and waiting to run to the ground. This is not the winter for big lines; worst snowpack I’ve seen in the San Juans after 10 years of paying attention to the snowpack.

    Usually this time of year is one of the better times to get after it on bigger lines down here, but right now it’s a good time to get killed in terrain that we generally find to be on the safer side of things. Several experienced folks down here have had some close calls from small slides that have stepped into much larger slides in terrain that doesn’t usually run except right after a storm.

    Be careful out there, and hope for a huge storm to smash things together or clear things out!

  4. Colin January 31st, 2012 12:44 pm

    thank you for posting and the analysis of the snowpack down there, I think this is great advice for the whole state right now.

    “Unfortunately these big hard slabs are now buried by more snow, things are still tender and waiting to run to the ground. This is not the winter for big lines; worst snowpack I’ve seen in the San Juans after 10 years of paying attention to the snowpack.”

  5. chris blatter aka silvertonslim January 31st, 2012 2:44 pm

    Well spoken SanJuanSkier….I’ve been around enough winters to know this 2011/2012 version is “special”. Thought I’d share what I saw….wish I had taken a photo of the 9′ pit I dug that day.
    Maybe I should stick to photographing avalanches this winter and not skiing in their path. Wonder if I set up a motion triggered camera if it would catch the show?

  6. chris blatter aka silvertonslim January 31st, 2012 2:48 pm

    Hey, and a correction….first and second photos were taken from same spot..the photo from below on CR#35 is not attached here.

  7. Lou January 31st, 2012 5:55 pm

    Weird I didn’t catch that… I guess I was busy tongue lashing someone or… Will fix immediately.

  8. Crazy Horse January 31st, 2012 8:00 pm

    By now i’m sure you’ve heard all the incredible POV controversy after Taylor ran near Teton Pass on the 24th. (http://www.tetonat.com/2012/01/24/taylor-mountain-avalanche/#comments) When this thing goes the amount of snow it shakes loose reminds me of a North Cascades avalanche.

    Fortunately in the Jackson Hole area the egos are so inflated that if one of the bros sets off a slide all he needs to do is hold his breath and he just floats off high above the action.

    ps Teton Pass recorded 200,000 skier days last year. Backcountry Wilderness indeed.

  9. PGyr January 31st, 2012 9:20 pm

    I’ll have to try that next time I need to fly. Just another Ahole from Jhole..
    200,000 annual skier visits seems unreasonably high., The parking lots can support about 80 rigs at a time and are not by any means full on weekdays. Back of the envelope guess as local and frequent pass skier is a number nearer 100,000. Which is a big number, but it isn’t twice as big.

  10. Lou February 1st, 2012 6:17 am

    No sure where those user stats are coming from, but there is a tendency for some outfits to over-state user numbers to generate funding or justify restrictions, or get more parking… for better or worse…

  11. mt splitski February 1st, 2012 9:10 am

    “Crazy Horse”,at least post your real name if you’re going to make big generalized judgements like that. Don’t bring that debate over to this forum, especially on a completely unrelated thread. Did you know any of the parties involved on Taylor? Are you familiar with the area? Do you know the facts and context of the incident or are you basing your attitudes on the “blogalanche” on Romeo’s site? If you answer no to any of the above, you’re just as bad (if not worse) than those “egos” voicing their opinions over there.

    Thanks for posting these images Lou. The ability to get so much real-time, bullseye data through images is one of the major advantages of sites like these.

  12. Joe February 1st, 2012 10:05 am

    Im sure many of you have seen the video of Meesh Hytner in Montezuma. http://www.backcountryaccess.com/2012/01/29/pro-snowboarder-saved-by-float/ Not sure if this was planned so that the videographers could catch a Avi bag deployment but the fact that you can hear a camera shutter firing away in the audio makes me believe the party was purposely setting up the scene for her to pull the cord. Not one scream or radio chatter very odd to me. Thoughts?

  13. Lou February 1st, 2012 10:15 am

    Instant media blitz if you’re in a slide and have photos or vid of Avalung or airbag use. Perfect for a wannabe pro as manufacturers and their PR agencies will do PR for you for free. Good points on that comment thread about judgment calls. And up to a point I’m glad they’re getting these sorts of things out there, but eventually it’s going to get tiresome.

    I can totally see someone who knows what they’re doing setting up a situation where they get ‘lanched with lots of photography and video, and use an airbag for their save. Not accusing this one of that, but it’s going to happen if not already.

    Also, remember that in lots of slides the victim doesn’t get buried — airbag or not. This especially true in slides with wide/long runouts that thin out the deposition.

  14. Mark W February 1st, 2012 10:39 am

    Great avalanche photos. Stunning territory.

  15. jeffrey February 1st, 2012 1:34 pm

    can I ask SanJuanSkier or any of you how “this time of year is one of the better times to get after it on bigger lines?”

    skiing steep terrain in mid winter in colorado is a gamble no matter what the danger rose says. When did it become okay to ski in high consequense avalanche terrain in january in colorado? Perhaps the past few seasons were an anomoly in that people could get away with things, but I think this season is more ‘normal’ than not. I was taught never to trust a depth hoar snowpack. Seep alpine terrain, or “getting after it on bigger lines,” should be reserved til spring.

    That thing in Montezuma is ridiculous as well, those are spring lines. I’m no old timer guess i’m just an old soul.

  16. mt splitski February 1st, 2012 4:37 pm

    Those are serious words of wisdom for many intermountain (certainly us around Bozeman) locales this season.

  17. Lou February 1st, 2012 5:13 pm

    I’d agree that for the last few years we’ve seen a trend of people in Colorado treating lines like they’re in the PNW, Sierra, or other places with a generally more reliable snowpack. In some cases, I’ve felt this must be wishful thinking influenced by an overdose of TGR films and powder lust. Other times, folks really do their homework and stability assessment and manage to suss it out along with using extraordinary caution. I admire the latter. Wide skis are what have made it even possible. In the days of 60 mm, even the slightest bit of faceting rendered most stuff nearly or completely unskiable. As I sit accused of Monday morning quarterbacking about all this stuff, I’ll go ahead and say at the risk of shunning and other retribution for myself (and perhaps even exile to Panama), that if you’re taking big Colorado lines in midwinter and not being almost ridiculously over cautious, the days are numbered before you’ll have a serious incident.

    Some grey hair’d old avy expert once said “If a slope only has a one chance in a hundred of sliding, and you ski it a hundred times, what then?”

    Ol’ greybeard was of course not using math but rather terms of art, but the point is pretty obvious.

    I’d also add, to be fair, that yes there is a time in life when a person takes a bit more physical risks, and may live the life of a mountain gladiator with an almost spiritual connection to the game. But that time doesn’t last forever, and one has to take care of who they bring into the game with them.

  18. mt splitski February 1st, 2012 10:10 pm

    Love it Lou. Awesome insight.

  19. SanJuanSkier February 1st, 2012 10:46 pm


    Not to say it’s always possible OR an good idea as a blanket statement. The past few years in the San Juans we’ve experienced the ‘January thaw’ ie no snow, and high pressure, warm days and lots of sun. Usually the January thaw is preceded by a large storm in December that drops lots of snow from Baja. This accomplishes 2 things.

    1. A heavy storm (10+ feet over a week) with wet snow will bond well to the surface, this creates a pretty consistent layer over the typical hoar/facet layered snowpack.
    2. A heavy storm also will often cause a widespread avy cycle that clears things away, this usually happens mid storm, where the remaining storm snow is still wet and will bond well to the bed surface.

    We know from our avy classes that a solid 6 foot layer is a great supporting bridge, and that most hard slab avalanches are started near rock outcroppings and places where said hardslab is thin and tension on the slab is extremely touchy. The Berthoud pass avalanche with injuries is a great example, large hardslab started with a 12 inch crown in the rocks. The slide I started in Prospect Basin started near a knoll with a hardslab 6-8 inches ccross, propagated to a huge slide with a 6ft+ crown. The place where the crown was 6ft+ thick I had spend almost an hour cutting several cornice blocks in the 1000lb+ range, no results, and they bounced, HARD! Classic hardslab…. As always it’s a catch 22, you’re probably less likely start a huge avalanche in the gut of a slope with a thick slab under you, but your chances of escape are nil, and you’ll likely get beaten to death. On the sides you are more likely to trigger something, but have a better chance of escaping to the side or not being carried all the way down. Most slab avalances start near changes in topography (convex, concave, wind lip, rocks, edge of trees, etc….)

    In addition, I’d never just get out in big terrain that I was not familiar with. Most winters I am in the BC 5 days a week, I did pits, take note of cornice growth, previous slides, and activity on similar aspects and elevations. January in the San Juans can often result in corn skiing on southerly aspects until winter returns in Feb. Also knowing results of explosives from either CDOT or the Helicopter skiing company helps build a knowledge.

    This info plus some LNT trundling (cornice cutting- not like the Teton incident) helps paint a picture of that snowpack. There are times that skiing a 45 degree slope is somewhat safe in January, assuming the weak layers (hoar) are smashed into bondable snow, there has been an avalanche cycle that cleared things out, etc… It’s all about micro analysis of the slope, not the CAIC, or the region in general. As for big lines, this includes couloirs, often times in the 55+ range, again they usually have a very deep snow pack as the snow is deposited in a 8 foot wide ribbon, but has collected from an area 100 feet wide (so deep and consolidated). Problem in the San Juans (as elsewhere) most couloirs while generally safe, usually run out into a less safe apron with no shelter from wind and wide temperature variants.

    Add in another factor of skiing style- Skiing consequential lines is not the time to take a fledgling telewhacker to tumble down the hill. It’s not the time to make hockey stop turns near outcroppings, its not the place to farm powder 8s. It’s the place where well balanced fast skiing is another tool in the arsenal, not to say that’ll save you, but, just like terrain analysis and history, it’s another feather in your avy cap.

    This winter I’ve not got the usual amount of days in so my feel for the snow pack is lacking, therefore my aggressiveness is toned down significantly. This year has also been a year of wind, small storms, and wildly varying temps (typical SJs), so it’s a WAY worse year, regardless of one’s pulse on the snowpack. Had I been at 45 days so far this year I doubt I’d be stepping into big terrain anytime soon. Last January was different, multiple pits at elevations on 14’ers and high 13’er yielded an amazingly strong snow pack in the Northern San Juans, this year I wouldn’t even expose myself to the slopes where I dug pits last year. Ask Telluride Heli-Trax what zones they were skiing late last january, you’d be surprised. I doubt they are skiing much of anything in the alpine over 30degree this year. Look at the lines that were skied on the Wasatch Face last year in T-ride, it was a pretty good snowpack last season for the San Juans. Even so there were days last January where we had lofty goals and due to one reason or another spent the day meadow skipping and skiing low angle trees.

    I agree we’ve seen some incredibly careless accidents this year, the Montezuma incident was, to my knowledge a low key comp or photo shoot, yet I was surprised at the line taken from what friends had told me was a sketchy (even for CO) snowpack. I guess Go-pros and airbags make people feel 10x safer.

    Ask SilvertonSlim about this winter. He knows some lines in his neck of the woods that can be safely skied many Januarys but not this year.

    At the expense of sounding crass, I’d have to say that being a local to a certain area helps alot! Many seasons I can go to my favorite zone and tell you where and how many avys have run, where the crusts are, where the dust layers are, etc…. Even when I go to better snowpacks like the Wasatch, and Tetons, I ski much more conservatively as I don’t know this history and metamorphosis of the snowpack.

    Feel free to contact me off this board personally if you are wanting to lambast me or ask more ?s. My original post was to confirm what SilvertnSlim’s pics showed and to explain to others that this was not your typical Jan in the San Juans. And Lou, you fully have my permission to share my contact info with Jeffery.

    p.s. You’re not Jeffery as in the Dude or el Dudarino are you?

  20. SanJuanSkier February 1st, 2012 10:51 pm

    Upon further reflection i realized this.

    The San Juans are flat
    The San Juans will kill you
    The San Juans are ugly
    The San Juans are full of people
    The San Juan locals are mean, usually drunk, and always armed
    The San Juans have no good skiing
    Summit County, ecspecially Loveland Pass is the bee’s knees

    I’m headed to MN where its friendlier conditions 🙂

  21. Lou February 2nd, 2012 6:37 am

    San Juan, that is truly a beautiful data dump! Thanks!

  22. brian h February 2nd, 2012 7:22 am

    Yeah, there’s a reason CAIC is in Silverton. And it aint the sushi scene…

  23. Lou February 2nd, 2012 7:59 am

    One of my favorite mountain mystics wrote:

    “As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”

    — John Muir

  24. chris blatter aka silvertonslim February 2nd, 2012 3:37 pm

    Nicely composed response SanJuanSkier; there are real advantages to knowing your local terrain and the history of the snowpack starting from the beginning of the season in Oct to the present. I’m sure I still make mistakes in judgement but they are not ,in my opinion, “life or death” decisions because I feel I know what the local ave conditions are in adition to the CAIC general report. And I know that when many have put their planks up for the summer I can still ski plenty more. Therefore I seldom feel the “this is my only chance to rip this line…I better take it” mentality that non-local folk seem to wrestle with. The old man in my neck of the woods, Chris George at the St.Paul Lodge, told me to watch the snow all winter and practice patience.

  25. jeffrey February 3rd, 2012 9:16 am

    I’m not lambasting you or anything like it, just asking questions.

    The avalanche doesn’t care that you’re a local.

    I think your data set is too small, and I also think that your familiarity doesn’t lower the risk it just lowers your perception of it.

    6′ of slab bridging over a depth hoar snowpack is not ‘stability’ it is just less likely to be triggered.

    I wanted to ski something yesterday…column failed at 2 from the wrist at 30 degrees but I still wanted to drop in because ‘i ski here all the time.’ My partner wanted to bail and we bailed.

    We can all agree on having fun and staying safe so keep at it.

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