Colorado Avalanche Information Center presentation held in Vail shows improvements to state’s backcountry snowpack, but skiers should still exercise caution 

Carolyn Paletta
Vail Daily
The State of the Snowpack was held at Vail Brewing Company on Wednesday. There will be another presentation on the local snowpack later in the spring.
Carolyn Paletta/Vail Daily

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center partnered with local rescue and ski patrol groups to present the latest State of the Snowpack at Vail Brewing Company on Wednesday night. The bi-monthly information session gives community members updates on snowpack levels and avalanche conditions while encouraging connection among backcountry recreators.

Brian Vestal, the director of snow safety at Beaver Creek Mountain, shared that avalanche conditions have improved considerably since early January when four people died in slides over a span of two weeks. He credits the improvement to the steady but lighter snowfalls over the past few weeks, which have built up the snowpack without impacting the existing layers.

“These incremental loads bond really well to the old snow because it has a chance to not be super stressful on the snowpack,” Vestal said. “Snow is always changing, so if it’s not getting worse it’s typically getting better.”

While last month’s conditions were primed for large-scale avalanches that broke to the bottom layer and posed a greater risk of fatalities, recent conditions are prone to surface slides. There have been 89 human-triggered avalanches in the past 30 days, 66 of which have been classified as a 1 or 1.5 on the 5-point D-scale, which assesses the destructive potential of an avalanche. D1 avalanches are considered relatively harmless to people, and there have been no accidents or fatalities recorded by the CAIC since Jan. 7.

Consistent snowfall has also led to the highest snowpack levels that Colorado has seen at this point in the season since 2017. At 13.65 inches of snow water equivalent, the statewide snowpack is at 125% of the average measurement for this time of year. 

Snowpack levels for this season, shown in black, are 125% of average levels.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center/Courtesy photo

“At six, seven-foot snowpack, you can’t affect that weak layer very well,” Vestal said. “You can if you find trigger points or sparse trees or cliff bands and complexities — there are all these disclaimers associated with that — but in general it’s really hard to trigger that weak layer.”

While the likelihood of large-scale avalanches is diminished, Vestal described current backcountry conditions as “scary safe.” This is an environment where, “You’re not seeing signs of instabilities, you’re not even seeing cracks from your tips, you’re not hearing collapsing around you but you might still trigger an avalanche.”

Obvious signs of danger are less prominent in the deeper snowpack, so Vestal said that deciding whether to venture out into terrain is primarily dependent on the recreator’s knowledge and trust in their analysis of a slope’s safety. 

Safety for snowmobilers

Building on that concept, two volunteers with the Vail Mountain Rescue Group followed Vestal’s talk with a presentation of their own concerning snowmobilers in the backcountry. Snowmobiles can get recreators into dangerous terrain quickly, especially if they are trying the sport and do not have a strong background in analyzing backcountry safety.

Emily Cutliffe, the chief of staff for the rescue group, said that snowmobile outings have led to nine missions this season, including two medical rescues. These included a Dec. 18 rescue where the snowmobilers were underdressed and in avalanche territory and another where a broken hip on Christmas Eve left rescuers responding with limited resources.

Vail Mountain Rescue Group facilitates a snowmobile rescue on Dec. 18.
Vail Mountain Rescue Group/Courtesy photo

Cutliffe emphasized the importance of packing the right gear. A snowmobile incident can occur many miles into backcountry terrain with no way to return on foot, and recreators need to be prepared for a potentially long rescue wait with fire starters, warm technical layers (not cotton), a bivy sack, communication devices with extra batteries, mapping and medical gear.

“If you’re hurt in the backcountry, medical resources are not always available,” Cutliffe said. “We know you need to be at a higher level of care yesterday, but we can’t do a lot sometimes to get you there comfortably. We can help you survive to get there.”

The Vail Mountain Rescue Group is an all-volunteer, donation-funded team that provides backcountry search and rescue services free of charge. Cutliffe said that the best way to help the team when calling in a distress situation is to give clear location coordinates, details and keep updated the physical condition of the recreators and describe any hazards in the terrain — the team has avalanche experts to assist in dangerous terrain rescues.

The next State of the Snowpack will take place later in the spring.

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