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Snowstorm hits San Juan Mountains

Heavy snow is expected today and Wednesday in the San Juan Mountains. Colorado Highway 145 has snowpacked conditions at Rico and Lizard Head Pass. (Courtesy CDOT)
Avalanche risk increases; but little snow sticks in lower valleys

Snowfall arrived this week in the San Juan Mountains and has elevated the avalanche risk.

A low-pressure Pacific storm heavy in moisture is moving over Southwest Colorado and is expected to drop 6 to 14 inches in the higher elevations, said Ben Moyer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“It is going to wring out mostly in the mountains with continuous snowfall today and Wednesday,” he said.

Heavier mountain snowfall is forecast for late Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon and evening.

By the end of the storm Thursday, Rico could get up to 14 inches; Telluride, 8 inches; Silverton, 10 inches; Purgatory, 4 inches; and Dolores, 2 to 3 inches. Cortez and Durango are expected to get 1 to 2 inches.

On Tuesday, Colorado Highway 145 around Lizard Head Pass was slushy and icy in spots.

On U.S. 550 there is a passenger vehicle traction and commercial chain law in effect between Electra Lake Road and First Street (21 miles south of Silverton) from, or mile marker 49 to mile marker 70.

Avalanche danger increases

An avalanche watch for Southwest Colorado mountains is in effect through 7 a.m. Thursday, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

On Tuesday, the western San Juans were rated at “moderate” avalanche risk, Level 2 out of five categories.

On Wednesday, the risk for that area jumps to “high,” or Level 4, for below tree line and near tree line, and at “considerable,” Level 3, above tree line.

Avalanche season has begun, evidenced by this slab release on Coal Bank Pass on Sunday. (Colorado Avalanche Information Center)
An injured ice climber near Ouray is transported to safety by the Ouray Mountain Rescue team on Nov. 21. (Courtesy Ouray Mountain Rescue Team.)
The Ouray Mountain Rescue team responded to an injured ice climber on the Ribbon route outside of Ouray on Nov. 21. (Courtesy Sam Rushing)

The avalanche watch is in effect for areas surrounding Ouray, Silverton, Telluride, Lizard Head Pass, Rico, Vallecito and the La Plata Mountains, according to the CAIC report.

Beginning Tuesday night, the storm is expected to bring heavy snowfall and strong wind.

The avalanche danger will rise rapidly by Wednesday morning. Elevated avalanche danger will continue through Wednesday as the storm progresses. By Wednesday, avoid travel in avalanche terrain.

Backcountry travelers “could trigger an avalanche on slopes where weak early season snow is preserved under a slab of recent storm snow,” the CAIC report states. “Northerly slopes at all elevations and high-elevation slopes facing east are where you are most likely to find this strong over weak combination and trigger an avalanche.”

Cracking and collapsing are warning signs that a slope could slide and people should retreat to slopes less than 35 degrees in steepness.

Cortez precipitation below normal

Early winter snowfall is helping to reduce drought conditions, but Cortez is still below average for precipitation at 63% for the year, said Jim Andrus, Cortez weather observer for the National Weather Service.

As of November, Cortez had 6.92 inches of precipitation for the year, well below the yearly average of 11.79 inches.

“We have a long way to go. So far, these storms have just been teasing us with drizzle,” Andrus said.

Snotels scattered throughout the Dolores and Animas river basin measure snow-accumulation and snow-water equivalent.

Snowfall for the San Miguel, Dolores, and San Juan River Basins is at 78% of normal as of Dec. 6, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service Snotel report.

The Dolores and San Miguel Basins are at 83% of normal, and the Animas Basin is at 76% of normal.

The long-term drought in Southwest Colorado has eased somewhat, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. As of Nov. 29, western Montezuma County was in “moderate” drought, Level 2 on a scale rising from zero to five. Eastern Montezuma County and all of La Plata County are rated “abnormally dry,” or Level 0 out of five on the drought severity scale.

Ice climbing rescue

As winter recreation ramps, so do accidents.

On Nov. 21, the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team responded to an injured climber on the Ribbon ice climb just outside Ouray, according to the team’s Facebook page.

A rescue team was able to reach the patient, stabilize the injury, and package the climber for transport out of the area in chilly, backcountry conditions.

“Lots of human power and hours go into executing a plan, accessing and assessing the patient, and coordinating an exit strategy safely,” stated the Facebook post.