Avalanche risk continues

'Scary snowpack' could last until June

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This year's weather has made Colorado's backcountry ripe for avalanches and experts say the conditions and the risks could last until June.

Scott Toepfer, mountain weather and avalanche forecaster, said this year's weather has created a dangerous situation for outdoor enthusiasts.

"It's a scary snowpack that's out there," he said. "Colorado hasn't seen anything as bad as this in possibly decades."

Toepfer, who works at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said most longtime backcountry users and avalanche observers are not comfortable moving through areas that are conducive to avalanches. The lower-than-average snowfall and cold temperatures in December, January and February, when mixed with the heavy snowfall in March, has created a weak snowpack. Toepfer called the conditions "a house of cards built on a weak foundation.

"The snowfall of the earlier winter months is a weak foundation," Toepfer said, "and the snowfall in March is the house, so to speak, built on that foundation a house that can easily collapse."

So far this year, eight people have been killed by avalanches, including Craig resident Daniel Ovenden, 31. Ovenden was killed when he was overtaken by an avalanche while snowmobiling near Pagoda Peak outside of Meeker on March 17.

The avalanche danger rating scale, an internationally used system, grades the risk of avalanches as low, moderate, considerable, high or extreme.

When Ovenden was killed, the area he and nine friends were snowmobiling in was listed as having a high avalanche danger.

For most of Colorado, the danger has been downgraded to moderate with pockets labeled considerable as of Thursday. One of the areas listed as considerable is the mountainous areas of Northwest Colorado.

This year's conditions have prompted the Colorado Department of Transportation to start avalanche mitigation work along the I-70 corridor that runs from Colorado's border with Utah to Vail and along Colorado Highway 82 through Independence Pass.

The avalanche mitigation work is accomplished by firing artillery at areas where an avalanche could occur, so the conditions won't become severe enough to threaten highways.

No avalanche mitigation work is planned for any highways in Northwest Colorado this winter, CDOT maintenance superintended Brad Brophy said.

Because of the conditions, the risk of avalanches could continue to threaten backcountry visitors into June.

"We're anticipating avalanches through April, possibly into May or June," Toepfer said.

"A lot depends on the weather. With the weak snowpack that's there, the risk won't be gone for a while and could lead to a lot of big, wet avalanches in April and May."

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