More than 302 avalanches recorded in Colorado since Feb. 27 — many of them are ‘just huge,’ experts say
March 9, 2019
SUMMIT COUNTY — Summit County awoke Friday to fresh scars carved across many of the county's mountainsides, as a series of large-scale avalanches that began Thursday continued to roar through the Rocky Mountains — with more snow on the way.
On Thursday morning, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center had already documented 302 avalanches across the state since Feb. 27 with 209 of them large enough to bury, injure or kill someone.
Weekend snowstorms were only a prelude to Thursday's slides, however, and the CAIC had to issue extreme avalanche danger warnings for four backcountry zones for the first time since the 10-zone forecast format began.
"The avalanches are running much larger than they have, in some cases, for maybe 50 to 100 years," said Spencer Logan, an avalanche forecaster with the center.
Logan said the CAIC will likely need several days to record all the activity that occurred Thursday, and he expects the day's total will register in the hundreds when it's all said and done.
"We've had a series of large storms Wednesday and Thursday that brought a lot of snow very rapidly," Logan explained, adding that some areas received as much as 24 inches of snow in a matter of hours. "All that snowfall combined with wind has created a lot of unstable slopes."
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One was fatal. A 48-year-old skier was buried and killed in an avalanche Thursday afternoon near Jones Pass in Clear Creek County. Other avalanche activity was reported in Summit County on Friday in the Ten Mile Canyon, at Breckenridge Ski Resort, by Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and across other areas.
"It's historic proportions for the slides that are coming down," said Charles Pitman, spokesman for the Summit County Rescue Group. "They're just huge. You start covering highways feet deep in snow and then have avalanches going across the interstate, that's something that just doesn't happen."
In his 16 years in Summit County, Pitman has never witnessed anything like the avalanches he saw this week, including a massive slide that carved a new gouge from the ridgeline between Peak 1 and Mount Victoria outside Frisco almost to the base of the mountain.
A SCAR IS BORN
Based on archive photos from the Frisco Historic Park and Museum, the path of Thursday's avalanche is not far from the one in 1912 that erased Masontown, an all-but-deserted mining town on the side of Mount Royal.
Pitman estimated the recent avalanche must have been a couple hundred feet wide as it ripped down the mountainside and snaked its way through a gully.
Trees caught in its path were wiped out, and the slide petered out toward the base of the mountain, where Pitman noticed the trees in the valley were darker on Friday than they were the day before. He hypothesized the avalanche's wind gust must have been powerful enough to blow all the snow off the branches.
"It sort of gives you an idea that it did go down a bit farther," Pitman said. "I don't think (the slide) went all the way to Rainbow Lake, but it was certainly heading that direction and my guess is that it got reasonably close."
Pitman said the avalanche outside Frisco was naturally triggered and, without any reports of missing persons, the rescue group was hesitant to send crews into the danger zone for fear they might be hurt.
It might look like a new ski run now, but Pitman said the chute is so littered with debris right now that it would be foolish for anyone to try to ski it with such a high risk of catching a ski and being seriously injured or killed.
"It looks like a beautiful ski run from here — just take a lift up to it, and you're in great shape," he said, "but in actuality, I think it has so much debris that that would not be a wise thing to ski."
The slides weren't exclusive to the backcountry, either. At Breckenridge Ski Resort, avalanche activity cropped up inbounds when one tore through an expert-rated trail off the Imperial Express SuperChair early Friday afternoon.
A resort spokeswoman said ski patrol responded to the incident immediately and no one was hurt. The Summit County Rescue Group also received an alert following the avalanche at Breckenridge Ski Resort but was told to stand down as the rescuers help was not needed.
Meanwhile, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area remained closed for the second straight day on Friday due to high avalanche danger. It's probably a good thing, too, because slides were reported at nearby locations known as "The Professor" and at a chute down the road from A-Basin known as "the Widowmaker," which covered Highway 6 leading up to the ski area. A-Basin is expected to reopen today.
While the avalanche risk was lowered from extreme on Thursday to high on Friday, more snow began falling in Friday afternoon and forecasters were calling for another 6-12 inches by this morning.
The snowfall could easily raise avalanche dangers again across the mountains, Logan said, explaining that even as the degree of danger may change slightly, it's not going away anytime soon.
Pitman is encouraging backcountry enthusiasts to view this as an opportunity to enjoy their favorite ski resorts.
The resorts aren't entirely risk-free, he said, but ski patrol does a "superb job" controlling avalanches inbounds and they're much safer than backcountry adventures at this time.
"Stay in bounds and enjoy the snowpack that way," Pitman said, adding that it's not a bad idea for people to carry avalanche beacons with them even at the resorts, just in case something happens.