Skier triggers weekend avalanche on Rabbit Ears

Derek Maiolo/Steamboat Pilot & Today
Kelli Rohrig tests the integrity of the snow pack on the west summit of Rabbit Ears Pass in February. A human-triggered avalanche on Walton Peak on Sunday highlights the importance of understanding risks and being prepared this winter.
File Photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Avalanche danger in Routt County has escalated in recent days following heavy snow storms and gusting winds.  

On Sunday, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center received its first report of an avalanche in the Routt County area. 

Steamboat Springs resident Tom Steinberg was skiing on the northeast slope of Walton Peak on Rabbit Ears Pass when an avalanche, triggered remotely from his ski track, collapsed a layer of snow. No one was injured, but Steinberg reported the incident to the Avalanche Information Center. He described hearing “some rather large whomps” when the avalanche occurred about 20 feet from where he was skiing.

Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Avalanche Information Center, said this description is typical of persistent slab avalanches, the type that are most likely to occur with Routt County’s current snow conditions. 

“This is a particularly nefarious type of avalanche that requires more consideration and a larger safety buffer,” Lazar said. 

Persistent slab avalanches, as he described, occur when a slab of snow breaks on a persistently weak layer of snow. This weak layer forms when exposed to a long period of cold, dry weather.

In Routt County, this occurred following October’s slew of snow storms that began as early as Oct. 9, according to Lazar. Subsequent storms have piled fresher, stiffer layers on top of this weaker layer. 

“That’s not the best structure for stability,” Lazar said.

Persistent slab avalanches are particularly dangerous, he said, because slabs can break and fall in unpredictable ways. 

Lazar said slopes facing north and northeast steeper than 35 degrees pose the greatest avalanche risk, but people should be wary of any wind-drifted slopes. 

“If you trigger an avalanche in a heavily drifted area, it is likely to fail near the ground and entrain enough snow to bury you,” according to the Avalanche Information Center’s website.

People also can listen for “cracking and whomping” in the snow, which are clear indications of persistently weak layers below stiffer slabs, the website said. 

As of Tuesday, avalanche danger around Steamboat was moderate below, near and above tree line, according to the center. That means heightened avalanche danger exists on specific terrain features.

Steamboat resident Brian Gardel has seen firsthand the heightened risk and has avoided steeper areas as a result. 

On Sunday, he was with some friends on Soda Mountain northeast of Steamboat when he conducted several snowpack tests, a way to assess the avalanche risk in a certain area. He found exactly what Lazar described: a layer of weak snow below slabs of stiffer snow. 

“It’s been developing over the last few weeks and getting worse,” he said. 

An avid backcountry skier, Gardel posted his findings to the Avalanche Information Center’s website to alert other recreationists. Gardel has skied in the backcountry 19 times this season as of Tuesday, but until the conditions improve, he is sticking to lower-angle slopes.

In case of an avalanche, Lazar urges everyone who travels in the backcountry during the winter to carry an avalanche beacon, a shovel and a probe. He also encourages the public to check the forecasts and conditions on the Avalanche Information Center’s website before heading into the backcountry. 

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Craig and Moffat County make the Craig Press’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.