Weak layer adds to avalanche danger

An avalanche was spotted just south of Cottonwood Pass on the Continental Divide last Friday. Current danger in the Sawatch Range is moderate, but a weak layer is present around the state. 


A dry spell in December left behind a weak layer of snow that has resulted in some dangerous avalanche conditions across Colorado.

“There’s just exceptionally weak snow around the whole state,” said Ben Pritchett, forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “It’s not historically unusual, but it’s different than what we’ve had the last few years.”

He said the persistent slab avalanche problem is a result of snow that has fallen since Dec. 11, forming slabs on top of a snow layer that grew weak during a dry spell. 

“The prolonged dry spell allowed the weak layer to form, and it was long enough to affect the whole state,” Pritchett said. “The slabs are comprised of the snow (that has fallen) since Dec. 11.”

Six skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers have been caught in avalanches so far this season in Colorado resulting in four deaths. 

Last year, 26 backcountry users were caught in avalanches that ended with six fatalities. 

The five years prior saw eight, three, one, five and three avalanche fatalities in the state, respectively. 

The danger extends to other states as well. On Friday, a snowboarder in Utah was killed in an avalanche in Dutch Draw, north of Park City.

Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, meanwhile, started a forecast pledge to encourage backcountry users to check the CAIC’s avalanche forecast every day before they venture out. 

People who sign the pledge before Jan. 31 at https://support.friendsofcaic.org/pages/forecast-pledge have a chance to win a pair of Kastle FX 106 skis and other prizes. 

Pritchett said the daily forecasts for the 10 zones across the state provide a danger rating, where avalanches are most likely to occur in the terrain, how big avalanches have the potential to be as well as travel advice. 

Currently the danger in the Sawatch zone is moderate with the primary danger of slabs on north to east to southeast aspects. 

According to CAIC’s Monday Sawatch report, “You can trigger large avalanches on steep slopes that face north, east and southeast where a cohesive slab of settled or wind-drifted sits above weak snow near the ground. Assume this combination exists on any wind-prone slope that looks smooth and rounded. Look for and avoid cross-loaded terrain features.

Daily forecasts and more information at https://www.avalanche.state.co.us/.

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