Recent snowstorms and winds gusting to hurricane force speeds have heightened concern about avalanches in Colorado’s mountains.
Avalanche danger levels rose to Considerable in at least six zones across most of Colorado’s mountains, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported Saturday. Considerable is the third level of avalanche risk, above moderate but below high.
“Human triggered avalanches are likely on slopes greater than 35 degrees,” the agency tweeted. “Avalanches will be largest and most dangerous on north and east-facing slopes.”
Areas at Considerable risk include the San Juan Mountains, Sawatch Range, Aspen, Steamboat, Flat Tops and the Front Range, according to the center’s forecast map. Gunnison, Grand Mesa, Vail, Summit County and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are at moderate avalanche risk.
October’s storms created a weaker snowpack that sits underneath this week’s recent snowfall, said Jason Konigsberg with the CAIC. That instability is what can lead to triggering an avalanche, he said.
Strong winds sweeping across the country haven’t helped, either. An unstable weather system moving in from the West Coast brought more than 80 mph winds to parts of El Paso County Friday night, said Klint Skelly with the National Weather Service in Pueblo. Wolf Creek Pass reported gusts up to 62 mph Friday, while Cottonwood Pass saw 75 mph winds, Skelly said.
Strong winds, combined with 8 to 12 inches of snow creates dangerous avalanche conditions, CAIC said. Skiers or anyone on a steep north through east facing slope will likely trigger an avalanche large enough to bury them, Konigsberg said.
“With this storm you can now trigger larger avalanches in more places,” read a CAIC tweet. “Wind-drifted slopes that face N-E are most dangerous. See cracking and collapsing? Move to lower angled terrain.”
On Nov. 22, a backcountry skier was buried up to their waist after being caught in a slide at 12,450 feet on Jones Pass. While skinning in about 8 to 10 inches of fresh powder, a large wind-slab reportedly broke off, surrounding the skier with a reported “slide crown” of about 2 feet. The skier deployed their safety airbag as the slide moved 50 to 60 feet down the slope.
CAIC data shows there have been at least 31 avalanches statewide in November triggered by people. The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education offers avalanche awareness courses that educate travelers on how to survive avalanche hazards.