TELLURIDE – Although the full extent of the San Juan winter to come remains a big question mark, there is little doubt that winter will be here eventually, bringing with it the region’s well-earned reputation for avalanche activity.
In preparation, the San Juan Field School, in conjunction with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and other local avalanche organizations, presents the ski season’s first Avalanche Education Forum Monday, Dec. 10, in Rebekah Hall, at 7 p.m..
The educational forum is the first in a winter-long series, which aims to better educate the Telluride community about the avalanche hazards out our backdoor. The first lecture will preface the area’s overall avalanche picture, from the San Juan’s persistently unstable snowpack to its easily accessed side- and backcountry terrain.
“This is really an opportunity to open our eyes to what’s out there,” says one of Monday’s guest speakers, Peter Inglis, an instructor with the nonprofit San Juan Field School and a member of the Telluride Ski Patrol’s snow safety team. “It will give newcomers an introduction to our snowpack and longtime backcountry travelers a reminder of what we face here in the San Juans.”
Monday night’s forum will also feature presentations from CAIC San Juan avalanche forecaster Matt Steen and representatives from San Miguel Search and Rescue and/or the U.S. Forest Service. There will be a discussion about the nature of a continental snowpack, past and present; a look at backcountry terrain and the history of avalanche fatalities in the region; a quick entrée into backcountry rescue; and other pertinent issues.
As Inglis emphasizes, it’s important for new and veteran backcountry travelers alike to be reminded about the particulars of traveling safely in avalanche country, especially considering the long and storied local history of avalanche incidents.
Of the 34 total avalanche-related deaths in the U.S. last winter, seven occurred in Colorado, and three of those were in the southern San Juans. One slide killed longtime Telluride resident Nate Soules just outside the ski area boundary in Lower Bear Creek, in the Contention Fingers, while another massive slide took the life of a Crested Butte skier in Paradise Basin, near Ophir. The other regional avalanche death occurred on Wolf Creek Pass.
Although the current dearth of snow may put avalanche-danger awareness on the back burner for many skiers, Inglis emphasizes that avalanche hazard could increase dramatically with the arrival of a single snowstorm or two. As he explains, this early season’s warm temperatures could be the recipe for persistent instabilities in the snowpack, since the unseasonable warmth has caused what little snow there is lingering in high-altitude pockets to take on a cohesionless, faceted form, thus creating the potential for winter-long, deep-layer instabilities once that snow becomes stressed under the load of new snow.
The CAIC’s Steen noted that after the Crested Butte area received between 2-5 inches of snow last week, that area – which had a similar base snowpack to Telluride’s – saw a significant avalanche cycle. “It’s not going to take much of a load on our weak foundation” to see avalanches here following the next storm, he said. “Expect the danger to rise with any new snow,” he added.
The CAIC will host a fundraiser at the Last Dollar Saloon in Telluride on Saturday, Dec. 15 starting at 6:30 p.m. The band Trico will take the stage at around 7:30 p.m. A second fundraiser happens in Ouray, on Wednesday night, Dec. 19, at O’Brien’s Pub, at 6:30 p.m.