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Avalanche risk moderate as some backcountry hot spots are seeing above average snow

Dylan Anderson
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Antoine Leunis gets some early-season skiing in at the top of Rabbit Ears Pass on a Friday afternoon in October. Rabbit Ears Pass and other popular backcountry recreation areas have decent snow and a moderate risk of avalanches.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

None of Colorado’s 27 reported avalanches so far this season have been in the Steamboat and Flat Tops region of the state, but the area is still considered to have moderate avalanche risk.

While snow on Mount Werner is lacking, which is potentially delaying the start of the 2021-22 ski season at Steamboat Resort, several backcountry hot spots have above median snowpack for this time of year, according to data from the National Climate Center.

Measurement stations on Rabbit Ears Pass are about 160% of the median over the past 30 years. At Dry Lake on Buffalo Pass, snow is at about 120% of the median, and Buffalo Park, a popular snowmobiling area on Rabbit Ears in Grand County, is at nearly 130% the median.



“The Park Range and Flat Tops currently have the deepest snowpack in the state,” wrote Mike Cooperstein, lead forecaster for the northern mountains regions for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “These areas with the most snow have the potential for the largest avalanches.”

Cohesionless snow like this causes a weak layer that can be prone to avalanches.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center/Courtesy

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center ramped back up its daily forecasts last week, as the snowpack around the state builds and the risk of it sliding out from underneath backcountry enthusiasts increases. Currently, the Steamboat and Flat Tops region is in the second of five levels of risk the center forecasts.



This moderate level means the risk is higher around specific terrain features, but avalanches are more likely to be triggered by humans rather than slide on their own. Any slide at this level of risk would typically be small, in specific areas.

“You can trigger avalanches that break on weak snow under recent wind drifts,” the center wrote in its summary for the region Sunday. “You are most likely to find dangerous conditions on north, northeast and east-facing slopes.”

The problem at this point of the season is that areas with enough snow to look enticing to backcountry enthusiasts are the same spots where avalanche risk is higher, Cooperstein said.

“The spots with the best coverage have the potential for the largest avalanches,” he said. “It’s the early season balancing act of finding enough snow, but now, the snow with avalanche-prone, wind-drifted characteristics.”

Wind out of the west and northwest has led to significant drifting in some areas, which is sitting on top of weaker layers of snow that together increase the potential risk of avalanches.

Seeing cracks in the snowpack or having it crumble underneath while traveling over it are strong indications there is a weak layer of snow below. This snow is likely cohesionless, which means it doesn’t have the ability to stick together.

“If you experience cracking, collapsing or hear ‘whumpfing’ sounds, you may be able to trigger an avalanche from a distance and should give steep slopes a wider buffer,” Cooperstein said.

Mike Weissbluth, a local meteorologist who runs the forecasting website SnowAlarm.com, said the chances for snow this week are late Tuesday night to Wednesday morning and then Friday into Saturday, but neither is expected to bring much more than “meager” snow accumulations.

“The coming two storms certainly won’t be game-changers,” Weissbluth said in his Sunday weather narrative. “Our best chances for snow this week will be of the manmade variety.”


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