Beginning in late December a strong, warm, and very wet storm track swept over Colorado bringing 6-10 feet of new snow to the higher elevations of western and southern Colorado. The Elks and West Elk Mountain ranges of the Central Mountains were especially hard hit. On McClure Pass CAIC forecaster Rob Hunker measured 81.5 inches of snow (7.95 inches of water). Remote instrumentation at the Natural Resources Conservation Service's SNOTEL site at Schofield Pass recorded 8 inches of snow water equivalent. With nearly 7 feet of new snow in the West Elks and Ragged Mountains the series of storms produced numerous large and destructive avalanches.
High pressure returned to Colorado and chased away the storms resulting in a 2-week stretch of mild, spring-like weather. As recreationists ventured into the mountains news of large avalanches were reported back to the Center.
One of the best reports comes from Jon Fredericks and Andrew Heltzel who came upon the destruction of a monstrous avalanche near Marble in a path known by locals as the Cleaver (aka Chair Horn).
The Cleaver avalanche path sits on the NE side of point 11,866, about 4.5 miles west of Marble and about 1 mile northeast of Chair Mountain. It is a very large, bowl-shaped path above treeline that faces northeast.
The Cleaver path is located between Chair and Rapid Creeks on the NE side of the unmarked summit about 1 mile to the NE of Chair Mountain.
The Cleaver is the large bowl-shaped area on the NE side of point 11,866. The avalanche released high on the peak and traveled to below 8,800 feet.
On or just before January 12, 2005 a very large and deep soft slab avalanche released near the top of the path. It fell over 3000 vertical feet and extended the runout zone far into the Aspens. The avalanche traveled over 1 mile and removed over 80 acres of large Aspens. Branches on stout old trees were broken off 40 feet above the ground. Broken tops of conifers were found hundreds of feet downslope of the debris, tossed there like matchsticks. In the runout zone the path is about a 1/4 mile across.
Photograph by Rob Hunker highlighting the Cleaver avalanche that likely ran on January 12, 2005.
Looking up the Cleaver path from the upper portion of the runout zone. This area used to be covered by thick Aspens. Photograph courtesy of Jon Fredericks and Andrew Heltzel, © January 22, 2005.
Aspen trees mowed down in west runout arm. Photograph courtesy of Jon Fredericks and Andrew Heltzel, © January 22, 2005.
Branches broken off 40 feet above the snow give an idea of the power of the powder cloud that swept down the mountain just above the moving snow. Photograph courtesy of Jon Fredericks and Andrew Heltzel, © January 22, 2005.
A panorama view looking up the avalanche path. Photograph courtesy of Jon Fredericks and Andrew Heltzel, © January 22, 2005.
The avalanche was classified as SS-N-5. This was a maximum-sized avalanche relative to the avalanche path; it actually significantly increased the size and length of the runout zone. There is some debate as to whether this avalanche was a 30-year event or even a 50 to100-year event. Given the size of the Aspens destroyed I say it is closer to a 100-year avalanche.