If you ask the locals, it’s seemed a bit more like winter in Saguache Today than in recent years. The San Luis Valley has been seeing its share of moisture this season, although more is needed to catch up with the deep reserves. But high above the valley floor is where field reporters with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) have been observing weather conditions and perhaps more importantly for backcountry adventurers, avalanche danger.
And while your own winter concerns may take you no farther than getting your driveway plowed and sidewalk shoveled, it’s important to stay situationally aware of shifting snow conditions in the mountains. Not only can these storms impact traffic with an increase in snow and rock slides blocking highways and high mountain passes. But for those in the tourism industry, it’s imperative to know where to direct visitors venturing into the backcountry to find the latest conditions and tips on how to be prepared. To that end, Saguache today brings readers the following reports issued by the CAIC within the past 24 hours.
CAIC Field Report for Sangre de Cristos Zone
By Mike Cooperstein, CAIC Forecaster (filed at 8 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 17)
Strong winds since Thursday’s storm have moved all available snow to lee-facing slopes. North through east to south-facing slopes near and above treeline are the most dangerous today and should be avoided. We have also received reports of dangerous wind-slabs in open below treeline meadows, so do not blindly jump onto steep slopes in below treeline areas either.
It may be a few days before we know the extent of the avalanche cycle that this unusual snow event triggered, but from what we can tell it seems like most avalanches broke within or just underneath the storm snow. These avalanches were two to three feet deep and were large and dangerous. As you would expect with a storm with this high of precipitation intensity, we have also received reports of dangerous avalanches breaking near the ground or on mid- to upper-pack layers such as near-surface facets and facets around crust. The crust-facet combos are more prevalent on sunny slopes and could be buried 3 to 5 feet deep at this point. If you trigger an avalanche on one of these persistent weak layers it will most likely be inescapable.
Snow continues today with up to 10 inches possible by Monday afternoon. The new snow will be low density., and will most likely not add enough weight to trigger another natural avalanche cycle. Slopes that continue to receive wind-drifted snow will continue to be dangerous and loading will have to stop before these slopes become more stable.
The bottom line is that this was a very large load in a short period. The general trend of the snowpack is good on a seasonal scale as we are building a deeper and stronger snowpack. For today, very dangerous conditions exist and the snowpack needs some time to adjust to this rapid load.
If you are traveling in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, these mountains received about a foot of snow with strong winds. Although this a lot less snow than the San Juan Mountains, the snowpack is much, much weaker and avalanches on deeper layers or the ground are more likely. This problem in the Sangre de Cristo zone will be slow to change.
CAIC Report for Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019 at 6 AM
This morning the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) issued the following Special Avalanche Advisory for the surrounding mountains near Saguache Today:
“A strong storm on Thursday night brought 1 to 2 feet of dense snow with strong winds to the mountains. Avalanche conditions remain dangerous especially in the Central and Southern Mountains. You can trigger avalanches that break in the new and wind drifted snow that will be large enough to bury or kill you. You may even be able to trigger very large very dangerous avalanches that break deeper in the snowpack. If you trigger one of these deeper avalanches it will most likely be inescapable. Consult the Zone Summary for the areas you are planning to travel for specific information and travel advice. Make sure you carry an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe and know how to use all of your gear. You can always limit the chance of being caught in a dangerous avalanche by sticking to lower angle terrain without steeper connected avalanche slopes above you.
February Avalanche Accident Trends
Over the last 10 years, February has proven to be the single most dangerous month for avalanches in Colorado. Over a quarter of the fatal avalanche accidents happened during this month. In the past decade, there have been 15 fatal avalanche accidents in the month of February. Eight of those accidents occurred in the middle of the month, and 4 between Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day. Historically, this weekend has been a dangerous period for avalanche accidents. But avalanche education and safety awareness can help to break that pattern.
Close Calls in January: How It Compares?
As of January 31, the CAIC has documented 57 people caught in 42 separate avalanche events. Seven of the people have been critically (head under the snow) or fully buried, and two have died. Of those, 60% of the involvements occurred in January, including both fatalities. The 56 cumulative involvements this year are far more than recorded for all of 2017-18, 2015-16, and 2014-15. Projections indicate that the 2018-19 winter season will tally the most avalanches on record with the CAIC.
About the CAIC
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) is a program within the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Executive Director’s Office. The program is a partnership between the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Department of Transportation (CDOT), and the Friends of the CAIC (FoCAIC) a 501c3 group. The mission of the CAIC is to provide avalanche information, education and promote research for the protection of life, property and the enhancement of the state’s economy.
History of The CAIC
Since 1950 avalanches have killed more people in Colorado than any other natural hazard, and in the United States, Colorado accounts for one-third of all avalanche deaths. The Colorado Avalanche Warning Center began issuing public avalanche forecasts in 1973 as part of a research program in the USDA-Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. The program moved out of the federal government and into the Colorado state government, becoming part of the Department of Natural Resources in 1983. The CAIC joined the Colorado Department of Transportation’s highway safety program in 1993. The Friends of the CAIC (a 501c3 group) formed in 2007 to promote avalanche safety in Colorado and support the recreation program of the CAIC.
Funding for the CAIC
About half of the CAIC’s funding comes from an intergovernmental agreement with CDOT to provide training and forecasting for highway maintenance operations. As part of the Department of Natural Resources, close to 40% of the Center’s funding come from the Severance Tax Fund. The rest of the funding to run the program comes from the United States Forest Service, local governments, the Friends of the CAIC, and from donations from people like you.