Abrupt change expected in backcountry conditions around Aspen – Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Backcountry snowpack conditions and the avalanche risk are on the brink of drastic change after a long period of general stability because of the dry spell.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued a special avalanche advisory Friday afternoon for much of the Colorado high country in anticipation of the first prolonged storm in about six weeks.
“The avalanche danger will increase rapidly through the weekend as the storm snow accumulates,” the avalanche center said on its website. “Human-triggered avalanches will become likely on Saturday, and naturally occurring avalanches will be a concern by Sunday.
“Many slopes that have been safe to travel on for weeks will quickly become dangerous as the storm progresses,” the advisory continued. “You will need to adapt your travel behavior accordingly.”
Prior to this storm, backcountry adventurers had treated to a rare period of mid-season stability and generally low avalanche risk. In the Aspen and Marble areas, adventurers had been able to explore bowls, couloirs and other terrain that would typically be off limits because of avalanche risk at this time during an average winter. The lack of snowfall starting early in January created relatively stable conditions and soft snow could still be found, said Blase Reardon, Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s forecaster for the Aspen zone.
Some backcountry enthusiasts had grown tired of the lack of powder and were sticking to the ski areas. “They’ve sort of lost heart,” Reardon said.
Others took advantage of the stability to ski or ride aspects that normally wouldn’t be settled until spring, he said.
Basalt resident George Trantow and friends skied a north-facing area called The Frig at the top of Mud Gulch on Marble Peak on February 12 and 13. The terrain was as steep as anything in Highland Bowl, he said, so he and his partners were surprised to find such favorable and safe conditions. Usually that area would only be considered for skiing in spring after the snowpack stabilizes. The gulch slid in January and the small amount of snow that has fallen since then had stabilized in the cold, shaded terrain, Trantow said.
Trantow is a regular visitor to the Marble area and noticed a drastic difference in snow stability since early January. While it seems a distant memory now, late December brought above average snowfall and high avalanche danger. Mother Nature turned off the spigot in early January.
“The stability improved over time. I was up there (above Marble) January 1 and I was scared,” Trantow said.
He said it is impossible to tell if more people than normal skied the backcountry in late January and early February, but it’s clear to him that people were venturing across broader terrain than normal for that point in the season.
“Stuff that’s not normally tracked up was tracked up,” Trantow said.
As Reardon put it — the extended dry spell made people comfortable on terrain that “would normally raise hair on the back of their neck.”
If he had to guess, he would say fewer people were venturing into the backcountry this winter compared to last year’s powder-packed campaign. However, the popularity of backcountry skiing has surged so much in recent years that the number of people out is regularly higher than just a few winters ago, Reardon said.
Dick Jackson, owner of Aspen Expeditions mountain guide service, said it’s been a challenging season because of the perceptions of local skiers. Many believed there wasn’t much opportunity in the backcountry because of the lack of snowfall. His team knows where to find snow because that’s part of their job as professional guides, he said.
Aspen Expeditions conveyed in a Feb. 10 blast email that the backcountry was still worth visiting this season. “We have a little secret to share with you. There is silver lining to the low snow: For those that enjoy a good hike on super lightweight Dynafit alpine touring skis (or your own), the Aspen-Snowmass backcountry has been supplying cruisy and fun powder. Coupled with low avalanche-danger ratings, myriad ski touring options have indeed been a notable bright spot of our winter thus far,” Jackson said that the stable conditions opened up some opportunities that normally wouldn’t exist in late January and February. “There was a feeding frenzy for a couple of weeks there,” he said. Others ridges haven’t been as attractive so far.
And it could rapidly change. The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning this weekend for an area that includes Aspen. “We’re in the third week of February. There’s a lot of winter left,” Jackson said.
Once the snow arrives, it will likely bring a quick and drastic change to avalanche conditions. “The snow pack is stable right now but it isn’t actually strong,” Reardon said Thursday. New snow won’t adhere well to the old snowpack, increasing the changes for slides.
“If we get some good snow, conditions are really going to change,” Reardon said.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center said backcountry travelers must “snap back into high alert after weeks of generally good stability. Do not let powder fever lure you into making dangerous terrain choices.”
For the updated technical information, go to https://avalanche.state.co.us/forecasts backcountry-avalanche/aspen.
// Outside of the Shared publication
Backcountry travelers must “snap back into high alert after weeks of generally good stability. Do not let powder fever lure you into making dangerous terrain choices.” Colorado Avalanche Information Center