Avalanche danger high
Two avalanches were reported along State Highway 135 this week, as officials posted avalanche conditions as "high" for the Gunnison Basin.
Motorists were temporarily delayed Monday night, January 28 around 8 p.m., when more than five feet of snow covered the highway at mile marker 9.5, blocking the southbound lane of Hwy. 135 just south of Almont.
Colorado State Patrol and the Gunnison County Sheriff’s office responded to the slide. No vehicles were involved in the avalanche and no damage was reported.
Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) workers were called to the area and cleared the road within an hour of the slide, according to John McDonalds, a CDOT transportation maintenance worker.
A second minor avalanche was also reported at mile marker 8 during the same time period. The slide did not impede traffic or require a formal response from law enforcement.
According to Mike Morris, junior foreman for CDOT, avalanches along the highway are unusual. He says the large amount of snow is contributing to the unstable conditions.
"Any kind of slide on Hwy. 135 is uncommon," Morris says.
Gunnison County undersheriff Rick Besecker, who has lived in Almont for 26 years, agrees and says, "For as long as I can remember I’ve never seen a slide occur there."
Besecker says the avalanches most likely occurred because of the windstorms the two previous nights.
He says the wind blew the snow up from the windward side and dropped it off on the drifts on the leeward side. "It gets so heavy that it cannot hold the weight and it avalanches," Besecker adds.
Jayson Simons-Jones of the Crested Butte Avalanche Center says the wind is causing havoc across the valley. He says it’s been a while since the valley’s lower elevation areas have had to be concerned with avalanches.
According to the Avalanche Center’s website, more natural avalanches are expected throughout the week as the snow pack has been further compromised by the additional snow load and wind. Forecasters for the center say the winds have most likely created deep wind slabs on most slopes, and areas that have not avalanched yet are poised to do so when the next storm arrives.
"People are skiing in places they never have before," Simons-Jones says, noting tracks have been seen on W Mountain, in the hills of Crested Butte South and around Almont.
Gunnison County issued an emergency public service announcement on Tuesday, January 29, encouraging county residents to heed avalanche warnings, after the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the Crested Butte Avalanche Information Center posted a "high" avalanche warning on Monday.
"We’re trying to make people more aware and encourage them to use the resources out there to inform themselves of the avalanche dangers," Gunnison County emergency manager Scott Morrill says.
The announcement, Morrill says, encourages residents to check out the centers’ warnings encouraging backcountry travelers to use extreme caution until the danger has passed. Backcountry travel and/or recreational use is strongly discouraged.
Although the avalanche slides on Hwy. 135 did not result in injuries, Besecker says the slides were significant. He cautions that a slide along the highway could potentially push a car off the road. He recommends motorists be aware of the weather conditions and report even minor slides.
Morrill says the last time the county experienced problems with avalanche slides on roads was during 2005, when there were several slides in Taylor Canyon that closed the road.
"Taylor Canyon is always of concern," Morrill says. "It doesn’t happen every winter, but it does happen." A minor slide in Taylor Canyon was reported early this month. No one was injured in the slide.
Morris says his crews have been busy this winter keeping up with the excessive amount of snow along Hwy. 135. "I am happy with how our people have performed this year with the amount of snow, the number of crises and the bad weather," he says.
For more information and up-to-date avalanche information, check out the Crested Butte Avalanche Center website at www.cbavalanchecenter.org or the State of Colorado Avalanche Center at http://avalanche.-state.co.us.