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RBC I Recent avalanche fatalities and current snowpack conditions in the high country have prompted the U.S. Forest Service to send a strong warning to those traveling in the backcountry to use extreme caution.
This year’s snowpack is exceptionally weak and it is possible to trigger avalanches from flat or low-angle terrain. Recent snow and wind have overloaded the backcountry snowpack. Backcountry recreationalists should know the current conditions and how to travel in avalanche terrain. They should watch for signs of elevated avalanche danger that include recent avalanches, cracking in the snowpack, and listen for “whumping” sounds.
Although certain snow conditions increase the avalanche danger, avalanches are possible any time snow collects on slopes. Ski areas provide a high level of avalanche safety on the slopes within their boundaries and the ski industry has an excellent avalanche safety record. Although their work drastically reduces the risk of avalanches, they cannot remove the risk completely. The public can reduce their own risk by obeying closures and signs at ski areas and using the buddy system.
“We are very concerned about the conditions as well as the rate of accidents so far this year,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Terrain throughout the Rocky Mountain region is subject to avalanches. When traveling or recreating in those areas, you are responsible for the safety of yourself and those around you. Avalanche potential increases with slope angle, snowfall, wind and rain.
“Current conditions have provided the perfect squall for avalanches throughout the Rockies,” said Kelly Elder, supervisory research hydrologist, at the Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. “The shallow snowpack forms weak snow layers and when a snowstorm or wind deposits a new load on top of this weak snowpack, things move and avalanches occur.”
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, five people die in avalanches on average in Colorado each year. There have already been four avalanche-related deaths this season. Since 2001 there have been 55 avalanche-related deaths in Colorado.
“Slopes that are close to sliding are just waiting for a trigger, such as a skier, snowboarder or snowmobiler. The problem does not go away once we have an avalanche cycle, because the weak base layers just get reloaded by the next storm. If we get a huge storm, then we will see the ‘perfect storm,’ rather than the ‘perfect squall,’ for avalanche conditions,” said Elder.
Greene says you can stay safe in the backcountry by following these three simple steps:
1. Know before you go: Read the current avalanche advisory so you know what conditions to expect. In Colorado, go to www.colorado.gov/avalanche.
2. Get educated: Take an avalanche class or avalanche awareness seminar so you know how to use the information in the avalanche advisory and recognize avalanche terrain.
3. Carry proper equipment: Carry avalanche rescue equipment, such as an avalanche beacon, shovel, probe pole and maybe a Recco tab or airbag, so you are ready if something goes wrong. Travel in a group and make sure everyone knows how to use their rescue gear.
References for Additional Information: U.S. Forest Service, National Avalanche Center: http://www.fsavalanche.org/basics/basic_index.html; Colorado Ava-lanche Information Center: http://www.colorado.gov/ avalanche ; American Avalanche Association: http://www.avalanche. org.