Avalanche forecasters encourage cautious recreation this winter

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If you go

What: Avalanche safety training

When: 9:30 a.m. Saturday

Where: Freeman Trailhead, 10.5 miles north of Craig

• Visitors should bring a beacon, shovel, probe and snowmobile. For more information on avalanche conditions in Colorado, visit avalanche.state.co.us

— The realities of avalanche danger is becoming strikingly real this year, with many risks lying hidden deep in the snow.

As the snowpack gets weaker, avalanche safety awareness needs to be a focus for anyone who travels in backcountry.

On Saturday, an avalanche safety class will take place at Freeman Trailhead, 10.5 miles north of Craig, for local snowmobilers.

The Northwest Colorado Snow­­mobile Club of Craig and Colo­­rado State Parks will sponsor the free annual event.

The program will show participants how to read potentially dangerous signs in the snow, geography and weather.

The training will provide basic avalanche rescue techniques using a transceiver, probe and shovel.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 27 people died in avalanches last winter. Sixteen of them were riding on snowmobiles when they triggered the slide.

There have been no deaths in Colorado this winter, but the state averages about six per year.

Avalanche forecaster John Snook said this year could be more dangerous than past winters, especially in the northern part of the state.

“We’re really concerned for our northern zones this year,” Snook said. “And that includes the Steamboat area. We’ve had a lot of comments from observers that conditions are the worst they’ve seen in 25 years.

“We just want people to be careful out there.”

He said the accumulation of snow in Northwest Colorado has all the classic features of a “continental snow pack,” meaning snow tends to be shallow and change over time.

Because the snowpack is shallow, the ground warms and cools in a wider temperature range, changing the snow crystals at the bottom of the snowpack.

The temperature changes transform the bottom snow layers into something called depth hoar, which are round, sugar-like crystals, Snook said.

These weak depth hoar layers provide conditions ideal for the layers above them to slide.

“Anytime something puts weight on that — whether it’s new snow, a person or a snow machine — it could turn into an avalanche,” Snook said.

Snook said avalanches usually occur on slopes steeper than 30 degrees and warned snowmobilers to be careful on steep slopes.

“The main thing is to be really careful and be cognizant of how steep terrain you’re on,” he said. “The way this winter is going, it’s better just to avoid it.”

He said once depth hoar has formed, it likely will not disappear until springtime.

Snook said this particular year might require a little extra restraint from activities like high-marking, which involves a snowmobiler traveling up a steep slope to see how high he or she can go.

“People probably need to kind of dial it back this winter,” he said.

“Everyone’s out there to have fun and not to get killed.”

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