February is only halfway over, but it’s already been one of the deadliest months for avalanches in the history of Colorado. Six people have died in avalanches already this month, including two more during the weekend, bringing the number of fatalities to 10 this season.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued a statewide special avalanche advisory during the weekend.
Since Friday, there were 87 avalanches reported around the state, according to the center’s website, including several in the Sawatch Range.
An avalanche was observed Sunday on Monarch Pass that was roughly 200 feet wide and traveled approximately 300 feet. Two more avalanches were reported on the pass Friday.
The problem is the same weak layer in the snow that has been causing problems all year. Now, however, fresh snow has been loading on top of it, making it even more dangerous.
“The same weak layer is the same layer of concern,” said Ben Pritchett, forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “As we get more loads of new snow, the same layers continue to act up. But now when they break, they’re spreading further and traveling further down the path.”
Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said the avalanche conditions this season aren’t unprecedented, but they are unusual.
“This is a one-in-10 years event,” Greene said. “We’ve always seen weak snow in Colorado, but it’s not usually this reactive and it doesn’t last for months and months like this year.”
Greene said December, which had four deaths, was one of the 15 worst months for avalanches in the state since 1950.
“January quieted down a little, but there were still some troubling signs,” Greene said.
With storms rolling in to start February, it’s already among the worst months as well. Greene said there was only one previous month with six avalanche fatalities and one month with seven, which happened back in 1962 when an avalanche ran into Twin Lakes village and killed seven.
Since 1950, he said there have been two years with 11 avalanche deaths and one year with 12. Colorado is currently at 10.
“We’re at 10 (fatalities) and there’s still a lot of avalanche season left,” Greene said.
The 2012-2013 season saw 11 avalanche fatalities in the state, but only three had happened at this point in the year with the rest coming in March and April.
Greene said February and March are also typically the worst months for avalanches.
“More people are in the mountains and we’re seeing more accidents,” Greene said. “We’re poised to break a really bad record that we don’t want to.”
To help people stay safe, Pritchett referred to the agency’s standing message: get the forecast, get the training and get the right equipment before heading into the backcountry.
Greene added two thoughts to help keep people safe.
He said to make sure your plan matches the conditions, adding that it’s a good year to switch to riding lower angle slopes while making sure you’re not traveling under steeper slopes that could slide.
“Standard routes people are used to are not good this year,” Greene said, saying people need to “re-think” their approach and also “stick to the basics.”
The basics, he said, include not assuming what has worked in the past will work this year, and also thinking about where avalanches can break, how far they can run and then giving yourself a wide margin of safety.
“This year is a little different,” Greene said. “One in 10 is a good way to think about it.”
Log on to https://avalanche.state.co.us/ for information, forecasts and observations about avalanches in Colorado including the Sawatch and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges.