Throughout the Central Mountains, avalanche conditions are generally safe in part because of the limited, or lack of coverage on most slopes. The exception to the rule is on slopes steeper than about 35 degrees that face north, northeast, or east where you could still trigger an avalanche that breaks near the ground. These slopes are easy to identify because they are located along or just below ridgelines where previous winds have drifted snow. They will be supportable to your body weight, look rounded and smooth, and be the most inviting slopes for skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, and extreme snowshoers. This makes for an especially tricky scenario if you’re an adventurous recreator looking to find some early season riding. In the Sawatch range, Independence Pass to Monarch Pass is where we’re seeing this problem most pronounced.
The last skier-triggered avalanche in the Central Mountains was on Friday, November 27th near Crested Butte on a steep, northeast-facing slope on Snodgrass Mountain. The avalanche was small but is a good example of the avalanche you might encounter.
So how come we aren’t seeing larger avalanches? The short answer is the lack of continuity of the weak layer described. Its spotty distribution throughout the snowpack is a barrier to how far and wide the avalanches can break. Now that we have more coverage and the surface snow is weakening this will change once we have a cohesive slab of snow over the current snow surface.
Weather is the architect of all avalanches and right now our current dry weather is not setting us up for a stable future. It’s like building a home (snowpack) on top of a sandy foundation (faceted snow). The current cold clear nights are turning the snow that exists on the ground into weak, sugary snow called facets. These facets are persistent weak layers and responsible for nearly 70% of all avalanche fatalities. If you’ve lived in Colorado for many years you’re already familiar with this problem as this is a common setup for Colorado's continental snowpack.
Looking ahead, we’ll have a small storm move through the area tomorrow. Snowfall from the storm looks to be minimal with only two to four inches of snow likely. We’ll watch to see what happens with the wind speed and direction but overall avalanche conditions won’t change drastically. Eventually, more snow will arrive and when it does we’ll be building a slab on a weak pre-existing snowpack. For now, enjoy the nice weather and generally safe avalanche conditions