"The entire state is already set up to see a pretty good avalanche cycle this season," said Telluride Ski Area Snow Safety Director Craig Sterbenz this week, referring to early winter weather patterns that have made for a dangerously unstable snowpack in mountain regions across Colorado.
There have already been numerous avalanche incidents recorded in the state this season: One canine death on Red Mountain Pass, one avalanche death on the Front Range's Berthoud Pass, one hospitalization after an Aspen Mountain ski patroller was fully submerged in a slide, and a number of avalanche workers caught and partially buried by avalanches on the Telluride Ski Area.
In November, three Telluride Ski Patrollers were caught in a slide while boot packing on Bald Mountain and all three were partially buried. Over the weekend, a potentially deadly avalanche took another patroller for a ride on the Killer run, while throughout the week members of Telluride's ski patrol have initiated significant avalanches on the Spiral Stairs, Mammoth, Happy Thoughts, the out-of-bounds Gold Hill chutes, and more.
"There have been some really close calls," said Sterbenz emphatically. "We've already seen a few areas slide that don't usually see much avalanche activity, especially this time of year. The snowpack is extremely tender right now."
Although avalanche hazards in the region has been consistently rated at moderate and above for much of the season so far, the dangerous avalanche conditions are effectively par for the course for the famously unstable San Juan snowpack. This season's first Avalanche Awareness Forum is Monday night, Dec. 12, a free series presented by the San Juan Field School and the Telluride Ski Patrol, 7 p.m. at Rebekah Hall. This event kicks off a whole winter of avalanche education courses, clinics and events.
The San Juan Field School's Director Nicole Green describes Monday's forum - appropriately titled "Ten Ways to Stay Alive in the San Juans" - as an introduction to safe backcountry travel in the Telluride region. Telluride Ski Patrol's Sterbenz will join San Miguel County Sheriff & Search and Rescue Director Eric Berg, Ski Patrol Director Gary Richard, Peter Inglis of Telluride's Snow Safety Department, and U.S. Forest Service Snow Ranger Scott Spielman, to discuss aspects of avalanche hazards in the region. Together they will take a look at what makes the San Juan snowpack so dangerous and how travelers can be prepared to make excellent decisions while in the backcountry. They will also examine the history of Telluride avalanche accidents in an effort to learn from past mistakes.
As a representative of Search and Rescue, Berg will discuss what kinds of rescue services are available in our county and why organized rescue operations don't often result in live recoveries. Sterbenz will address issues related to ski area boundary management and backcountry access from the Telluride Ski Area. He will also show photos of recent avalanche activity on the ski mountain.
This year, the San Juan Field School has expanded its programs to include three three-day avalanche courses, three one-day avalanche clinics, as well as a variety of free presentations, beacon rescue clinics and other educational programs.