Dissecting the spring snowpack with forecaster, Blase Reardon.

By: Tess Weaver Strokes

During an Aspen area snowpack discussion on March 21 hosted by local backcountry ski advocacy group Powder to the People, one audience member said he hadn’t seen a winter like 2016-17 in more than 40 years of skiing in Aspen. Aspen’s anomalous winter prompted local Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster Blase Reardon to present his findings before the spring backcountry ski season kicks off. He not only discussed the big storms in December and January and unseasonably warm temperatures throughout the winter, but also the high number of backcountry avalanche accidents and close calls. Reardon dissected several incidents, and skier Colter Hinchliffe discussed the avalanche he was involved in on January 7th.

Reardon started off by reminiscing about powder skiing the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Without any major fall accumulation, Aspen avoided the classic Colorado early-season, weak layer. Once winter began, any weak layers were crushed by Pacific storms filled with water that hammered the region in late December and the first 11 days of January, including three storms that brought more than five inches of water each on Schofield Pass — an event that always increases avalanche danger to extreme. But this winter, without a basal weak layer, the CAIC noticed a surprising lack of large avalanche activity. “The snowpack early this season was much more coastal than continental,” says Reardon. Aspen even escaped a dry January, which usually creates weak layers in the snowpack. Reardon counted less than a week of days without precipitation in January on Aspen Mountain. Local skiers who usually look for colder, shadier slopes were skiing cold smoke on even southeast aspects. But on January 19, all it took was two and a half days of clear weather, a little wind and a small storm to form a textbook surface hoar layer

“Surface hoar forms here all the time, but it doesn’t last because our dry spells tend to be long,” says Reardon. “The sun and wind destroy the surface hoar before it gets buried.” But not this time. And that one event has been the cause of most of this season’s close calls (unexpectedly triggering a slide) and incidents (someone comes into contact with moving debris). Despite the understanding around Aspen that this winter’s snowpack has been unusually stable, Blase proved there have been more close calls, incidents, and serious injuries already this season than in the past two years. Around the state, 60 people have been caught in slides, nine people have been buried and one fatality has occurred.

The crown of an unintentionally-triggered avalanche in the Five Fingers area of Highlands Ridge

Reardon analyzed an early-season 800-foot wide avalanche in Yule Creek early in Marble that swept a skier of her feet. When Reardon visited the zone the following day, he could barely find the weak layer in the crown and admitted he would have skied the slope in similar conditions. Reardon discussed two incidents in Maroon Bowl with different outcomes directly related to their decision-making abilities. He also showed photos from a January 7th incident on the Thumb Ridge in the Five Fingers area off Highland Ridge. Then Hinchliffe talked about the avalanche he was involved in on the same day on Red Table Mountain near Cottonwood Pass. One of Hinchliffe’s partners set off the slide on a 35-degree, treed northeast facing slope when avalanche conditions were rated “considerable”. He bounced off a tree and fractured his tib/fib. Hinchliffe was able to call search and rescue and sent a pin location from his iPhone that caused confusion. Hinchcliffe and his partner worked hard to keep the victim warm in single digit temperatures and dragged him 100 yards to a flat area where a helicopter could land. Eventually, after dark, the victim was rescued by Flight for Life Colorado. Hinchliffe said it would have been hard to take care of the victim had he not had another partner. The group brought sufficient warm layers, but Hinchliffe is adding down pants to his backcountry pack next time. He also warned against using phones for locations in emergency situations. Opt for a DeLorme inReach or a Spot device. Hinchliffe also discussed the safety benefits of skiing with partners of equal ski ability and ski style (short radius, punchy turns are more likely to set off slides than wider, faster turns made on the surface).

Reardon pointed out other interesting statistics, like that while historically fatal avalanches in the West Elks have occurred on west to north aspects, this year’s incidents have been primarily on north and east aspects. He also stressed the importance of communication within the backcountry ski community. “We don’t get regular feedback, we only hear when people are hurt or killed,” says Reardon. “Close calls one of best chances to get good feedback.” Reardon says backcountry skiers should approach this spring like they would any other, in that they should observe conditions up to two weeks back. An unusually windy March has stripped most west facing slopes on high peaks, and while shallow, rocky areas are loosing snow, local backcountry skiers are still finding dry snow at treeline—even after a week of 50-degree weather.

Katrina Devore enjoys some spring skiing conditions on Independence Pass.

Aspen ski mountaineer Ted Mahon is looking forward to the spring season ahead.

“After all the recent sun and warm temps the backcountry has morphed into a spring snowpack, a little bit ahead of usual. All we need now is a return to wintry conditions, which in recent years occurred somewhat reliably after thaws like we just witnessed. And then it will be a great April and May up on the local peaks.”