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Colorado avalanche forecasters sound red alert as new snow piles deep for MLK weekend

Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters are sounding the alarm for backcountry travelers as feet of new snow blankets weak layers
A layer of faceted snow developed during the dry weeks of late December and early January, creating a weak layer that is spiking the risk of avalanches with new snow. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Avalanche forecasters are sounding the alarm, warning backcountry travelers that after a couple weeks of low danger and dry weather that new snow piling deep atop weak layers will spike the risk of large slides this holiday weekend.

“There are going to be dangerous areas in almost all mountain ranges throughout Colorado this week,” Brian Lazar, the deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said Thursday. “People have been really jonesing for the return of snowfall and the return of winter and now we’ve got the most dangerous avalanche conditions we’ve probably seen all season coinciding with some people having some time off, and that makes us really nervous. There’s not going to be many places in the state that are going to be safe this weekend.”

The storms started Wednesday with a daily flow of storms through Monday expected to leave several feet of new snow across the state’s mountains. Forecasts show high winds with snow on Friday and Saturday, compounding the avalanche hazards as blown snow builds dangerous slabs.

In the past 12 seasons in Colorado, four of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekends have seen fatal avalanche accidents. After an unusually dry December and early January, there have been no fatalities so far this season.

Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters this week are on a mission to keep that number at zero. It’s a daunting task trying to reach backcountry skiers who have enjoyed several weeks of low danger and been able to ski and snowmobile just about anywhere without exposing themselves to excessive avalanche threats.

“Making the shift for people can sometimes be challenging,” said Ethan Greene, the director of the avalanche center. “What we really want people to do is check the forecast and look at what conditions are for the day wherever they are planning to recreate and make sure they make a plan that is appropriate for that forecast. So that stuff you were eyeing last week, probably is not going to be on the menu anymore.”

Greene and Lazar rarely tell people not to go backcountry skiing. But when danger climbs to “considerable” or “high” – which are ranked as No. 3 and No. 4 on the universal avalanche danger scale of 1 to 5 – they urge travelers to avoid, not engage, avalanche terrain. Recognizing that terrain can be a challenge for some backcountry travelers.

New tools deployed by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center offer backcountry skiers more precise forecasts for nearly a dozen different zones across the state.

“We are teaching people to plan ahead and so we want to give them the information so they can do that effectively,” Greene said.

On Wednesday night, the center issued an avalanche advisory warning of pending increases in the avalanche danger scale and Thursday morning, most zones were ranked with a “considerable” danger. The western edge of the Elk Mountains west of Crested Butte collected a foot of snow overnight Wednesday and the danger climbed to “high,” which is illustrated with bright red on the center’s map. With feet of snow predicted to blanket the high country this weekend, the increase in avalanche danger in the Elks “is an early indication of what is going to happen in a lot of other places,” Lazar said.

“A lot of other places are going to follow suit. We think we are going to see the areas go to high avalanche danger and red, expanding into the weekend,” Lazar said. “Everywhere is going to be dangerous because everywhere is going to get snowfall and it’s going to fall on those weak layers we’ve been talking about for weeks, which developed during the drought spell.”

It’s easy to direct folks to ski resorts during this kind of spike in avalanche danger. But resorts do have avalanches. On Wednesday morning as ski patrollers at California’s Palisades Tahoe ski area opened the renowned GS terrain beneath the KT-22 chairlift for the first time this season, a massive avalanche caught four skiers, burying and killing a 66-year-old local man.

“It’s not that it can’t happen,” Lazar said. “The resorts are orders of magnitude safer because there are people working actively and working really hard to reduce the risk but you can never get it to zero.”

“There’s always risk when you are in the mountains,” Greene said.

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