Unstable snowpack delays terrain opening

Unprecedented number of U.S. avalanche accidents in December

The ski patrol at Crested Butte Mountain Resort is working feverishly to open the ski area’s beloved Extreme Limits terrain, but an unusually high avalanche danger this year is hampering their efforts.



CBMR ski patrol director Erik Forsythe says Crested Butte is coming out of one of the greatest snow years ever, into one of the worst as far as snow safety conditions go. “Last year was about as good as it gets. This year it’s about as bad as it gets,” he says.
For ski patrol, great snow doesn’t mean deep, fluffy powder—it means a stable snowpack for people to ski on. CBMR snow safety director Frank Coffey, who joined the ski patrol in 1980 and has also worked as a helicopter skiing guide in Alaska, says he’s never seen the local snowpack look so bad. “The bottom line is we have the worst snowpack on the planet and we have complicated terrain here. We have to be very diligent and very thorough,” he says. “The expectation is we’ve gotten all this snow, why isn’t stuff opening?”
Coffey points to a soft layer at the base of the snowpack, called depth hoar, which is causing all of the problems. “There have been years where we’ve been able to open wall to wall by January 1. I think it’s safe to say it’s not going to happen this year,” Coffey says. The weak layer came as the result of an early season snowfall in November, followed by a series of long, cold days.
CBMR is reporting a total of 136 inches of snowfall this year, 100 of which has fallen in December.
Forsythe says some people get the impression that CBMR is dragging its feet in the process of opening the Extremes, but he says every effort is being made to get the terrain ready.
And Forsythe says CBMR makes this effort with locals in mind. “They’re the ones that get out there more. They’re our customers and we’re trying to provide the best customer service by getting it open as quickly as we can. But it’s not good customer service getting people caught in avalanches,” Forsythe says.
The troublesome snowpack isn’t confined to the slopes of CBMR. Coffey says the snowpack is unstable across Colorado and most of the northern ski resorts. In the last two weeks there have been nine avalanche fatalities in the United States and six in British Columbia.
An avalanche two weeks ago in the Crested Butte backcountry took the life of a local resident. CBMR provided patrollers and a trained avalanche dog to assist in the search and rescue operation.
Three fatalities have occurred in-bounds at ski areas this December, a number that Coffey says is unprecedented. Those included an avalanche at Snowbird in Utah on December 14, one at Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe on Christmas Day, and an avalanche at Jackson Hole on December 22.
On Sunday, another avalanche at Jackson struck an on-mountain dining facility and trapped several people, but everyone was accounted for safe and sound. There have been two in-bounds avalanches at Telluride in the last two weeks, in which no one was injured.
Following the snowstorm over Christmas, Coffey said, the ski patrol had a hard time just getting the main mountain open by 9 a.m. CBMR chief operating officer Ken Stone says ski patrol had extra staff on hand over the holidays, “to take care of the work that needs to get done.”
“We’re really aggressive on the resources we’re going to support (ski patrol) with, but we’re going to be very cautious… There is too much at risk here,” Stone says.
One of the troubles the ski patrol has in getting the main mountain open is due to regular areas of skier traffic that fall under avalanche zones. Silver Queen Road is one such place where avalanches could come from the Paradise Cliffs area and bury the cat track.
Forsythe says other areas where an avalanche could slide into a regularly traveled ski path include Horseshoe, Monument, and Westwall (a.k.a. Keystone Ridge). These three areas of the mountain have recently opened for skiers this season.
Three patrollers have been caught in small slides while working this season, Coffey says. “Our guys are good, and they’re putting themselves at risk,” he says. During avalanche work all patrollers must be equipped with avalanche beacons and shovels.
Coffey says the weak layer at the base of the snowpack is getting stronger with each day, and the recent warm weather helps. The bad news, he says, is the patrol is still triggering a lot of remote slides in the Extremes. “I’ve never seen this many remotely triggered avalanches in my history, and we’re still getting them,” Coffey says. The Headwall has slid twice during this season’s patrol work, and both times the avalanche ran on the same weak basal layer.
Forsythe says multiple slides on the same weak layer are an indication of high avalanche danger.
Last year the patrol used almost 7,000 pounds of explosives in avalanche control work. Forsythe says they’re using more than normal to get the snowpack under control this year.
Snowpackers have been out in full force since Christmas Eve, stomping the snow down to improve stability, but Coffey says the effort isn’t as effective as it could be. He says it would be best if the packers were able to break up the weak layer at the bottom, but there is so much snow in many areas, that layer is hard to reach. “In some areas packing is not that effective,” he says.
Regardless, Forsythe says the best way to improve the snow stability is to get people packing and skiing on the terrain.
Coffey says the resort may tentatively open the Rachels and Glades runs off of the North Face Lift this weekend, “barring any surprises.”
“Once we start getting terrain open after the next round of snow things just go faster. It gets a lot easier,” Coffey says.
CBMR has a staff of 63 patrollers who conduct avalanche control, control skier traffic, and respond to accidents and injuries.
“Frank is one of the top avalanche professionals in the world and we’re lucky to have him,” Forsythe says.
“Well, at least in the county,” Coffey laughs.

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