TELLURIDE – Recent snows have created a significant avalanche problem in the mountains of southwest Colorado.
On Tuesday morning, with three days worth (and more than 26 inches) of snow falling on the Telluride Ski Area and surrounding peaks, avalanche conditions are rated High overall and Extreme at higher elevations and on wind-loaded slopes.
Most reported avalanches, both natural and controlled, have been approximately three feet deep.
As of Monday, at least five Telluride ski patrollers had been caught in on-area avalanches while performing avalanche control work, some of them buried and at least one injured. Many of the slides occurred in small “pockets” of unstable snow, the TSP reports, located on or very close to established ski trails, and were said to be very easily triggered.
On Sunday, shortly after 1 p.m., an avalanche was reported just beyond the ski area boundary in the Temptation slide area of the federally closed Bear Creek terrain, above Telluride.
According to a reported filed with the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, witnesses saw two Telluride skiers exit the ski area boundary (by ducking the rope) and enter the Temptation slide path. One of the skiers triggered a slide later measured as one-foot deep and 100 feet across. Caught in the moving snow, the skier was carried approximately 1,700 feet – the full length of the avalanche – to a bench above the Bear Creek trail. The second skier, later identified as the victim’s brother, hiked back inside the ski area boundary, where he was questioned by members of the Telluride Ski Patrol.
Using a fixed-wing airplane, responders observed a single set of tracks leaving the avalanche deposition area, after which a full search and rescue response was put on standby. When the victim was finally contacted, responders found he had somehow escaped burial uninjured, and had skied down to Telluride after the accident. The SMSO report states that the man was “initially uncooperative with authorities, denying being involved,” but that “after further interview, he admitted his involvement [and] was counseled about the importance of reporting such incidents in order to mitigate any further risk to rescuers.”
On Monday, a backcountry skier triggered and was caught in an avalanche near Silverton, and was buried for close to two minutes before his partners were able to rescue him, unharmed.
Another skier-triggered slide, just outside the ski area, was reported Tuesday afternoon. Two skiers entered the Reggae Route legally via a gate at the top of the Plunge Lift (Lift 9), triggered the avalanche and were carried a short distance. They self-rescued, then performed a beacon search to make sure no one was buried below them. Finding no signal, they skied out of the area and called the incident in.
Matt Steen, the CAIC’s San Juans backcountry forecaster, said Tuesday that avalanche hazard is currently High, due to the rapid loading of wet, heavy snow on top of a weak lower snowpack. “That early-season snow has been sitting on the ground, rotting and faceting, and now was just hit with a massive load in a very short amount of time,” he explained, noting that the high winds on Tuesday could increase the hazard further.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued an avalanche warning earlier this week for the Northern and Southern San Juan Mountain zones, citing heavy snowfall and strong winds as factors in creating dangerous avalanche conditions across the region. Travel in or below avalanche terrain is not recommended, the warning states. The Avalanche Warning was in effect until Wednesday morning (check CAIC website for updates: avalanche.state.co.us.)
“It’s hard for people to reel in their excitement right now,”Steen said, given the long wait for fresh powder and the strong desire to get out and make turns in it. “So the human factor is what’s going to get people in trouble,” he cautioned.