Heavy and wet snow blanketing a weakened snowpack has spiked avalanche danger across Colorado’s high country. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued a “considerable” avalanche warning — level 3 of 5 — across the state for Wednesday and Thursday, and two avalanche-related deaths have already occurred this season.
Andy Feinstein, president of the University of Northern Colorado, and his son were skiing in the backcountry beyond the Breckenridge ski area on New Year’s Eve when both were buried in an avalanche.
Feinstein told the Greeley Tribune he was able to free himself from the snow and call 911 for help. Rescue teams found his son Nick, 22, dead at 3:11 p.m, according to a preliminary report from CAIC.
This came after a Dec. 26 avalanche near Berthoud Pass caught four people and fully buried two in the snow, CAIC reported. A 44-year-old snowboarder — the father of the other three — was buried and killed in the steep Nitro Chute on the west side of Berthoud Pass. The CAIC risk level for that area on Dec. 26 was “moderate,” level 2 of 5. (A backcountry skier was buried and killed the same area on the same day in 2020, marking the fourth fatality in a season that would eventually see 12 backcountry travelers killed in avalanches.)
Avalanche risk is determined by the composition of the snowpack, which builds up in mountainous regions over long periods of time. When solid and strong snow is laid on top of sugary snow, or weaker snow with larger crystals, there’s a greater likelihood of the snowpack’s structure giving out and creating an avalanche, according to CAIC Deputy Director Brian Lazar.
“High,” or level 4, risk means that avalanches are very likely and can occur without being triggered by human activity. Lazar said Tuesday afternoon that the combination of a weaker snowpack from previous months and a high volume of snowfall over the holidays led to the recent increase in avalanche risk. Too often, this is a recipe for disasters like the ones in late December, he said.
“I wish it was more rare than it is,” Lazar said. “When we see dangerous avalanche conditions occurring over holiday periods, we do our best to try to warn people, but it’s not uncommon for avalanche accidents to happen when those two events coincide.”
Through mid-January, however, Coloradans in the high country can expect weaker snowfall than recent levels, according to Matthew Aleksa, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service at Grand Junction.
An atmospheric river event, or a corridor of concentrated moisture, is projected to drop about 3 to 6 inches of wet snow in the mountains around Friday, he said, but afterward Colorado could see a break from heavy snowfall.
“It will be a wet winter snow, just because of the moisture and the milder temperatures,” Aleksa said Tuesday. “But looking ahead, it does not really appear like there’s anything significant on the horizon.”
Lazar’s advice for those looking to traverse the backcountry this season is threefold.
First, he recommends checking the CAIC website (avalanche.state.co.us) which publishes daily 48-hour forecasts, following their social media for regular updates and downloading their mobile app. Secondly, those planning backcountry travel must go out in groups and carry the minimum required rescue equipment: an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe. Finally, he recommends taking a recreational avalanche training course to learn proper rescue gear use and how to plan safer outings in risky areas.
Lazar said people can expect avalanche risk to ease a bit over the next week as snowfall decreases and the snowpack adjusts to somewhat drier conditions. But that’s all CAIC can predict for now.
“Once we get beyond a week, it is a little bit of just speculation,” he said. “It’s all going to depend on the weather events that roll through.”