Avalanches are coming down at a historic rate across Colorado. In Southwest Colorado alone, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center has recorded nearly 170 slides since Dec. 1 – and that’s just avalanches the center witnessed firsthand or ones people report and the center confirms.
“There’s more and they’re bigger,” said Ethan Greene, director of CAIC.
A weak, early season snowpack was the first piece of the puzzle to fall in place that set up Colorado’s record-breaking avalanche activity this year. Consistent snowfall through winter built strong, flat layers of snow on top of the weak, unstable layer.
“Then, really intense snowfall over a sustained period overloaded it all,” Greene said. “And because of all the low elevation snow, whole avalanche paths are full of snow, which creates a really powerful debris flow.”
During the first 10 days of March, the CAIC recorded more than 500 avalanches statewide. For the season, a total of eight people have been killed in avalanches, three of whom were in Southwest Colorado.
Around Silverton, longtime locals are seeing avalanches break in places never seen before.
Recently, one avalanche path, known as the Idaho, tumbled down toward the town, almost reaching the Animas River. It’s a slide locals keep a close eye on: Silverton’s Visitor Center is in its path.
“Some of the old timers were saying they haven’t seen it run that far since the 1980s,” said Jim Donovan, San Juan County’s director for the Office of Emergency Management.
DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said big winters are definitely felt in the town of 600. There’s only two ways in and out of town, so residents can be cut off from services, and alternatively, people can’t get to the town to shop or recreate.
“It can make us the biggest dead end cul-de-sac,” she said. “There’s been plenty of times where we have been cut off to the access of the outside world. It’s kind of wild. I’m always excited about it.”
Silverton Mountain co-owner Jenn Brill declined to comment for this story, but Donovan said the remote ski area that offers some of the most expert, extreme terrain in Colorado is still running trips.
Yet avalanche danger can be a concern there, too. Silverton Mountain posted to Facebook that one of its ski patrollers conducting a snow safety assessment triggered a slide March 3 in an area not open to the public. The person was injured but recovering, the post said.
By far, the most direct impact to residents in Silverton is the closure of Red Mountain Pass, cutting off an important lifeline to Ouray and Montrose. While the pass has closed for short periods with relative frequency this winter, recent avalanche work on the pass released more snow onto the road than expected, burying it 60 feet of snow. It’s now closed indefinitely.
Donovan said many people rely on access to Ouray or Montrose for things like medicine and supplies. But Silverton residents are a hardy breed and prepare for such obstacles, either heading south to Durango or stocking up.
One thing that hasn’t been affected is the delivery of the town’s mail, as well as its historic newspaper, the Silverton Standard & the Miner, which both come from Montrose.
Editor Mark Esper said the town has been able to get its mail from a U.S. Postal Service-contracted company, a two person operation that takes the long way – about 12 hours and 550 miles – from Montrose, over Lizard Head Pass and up from Durango, every day, even in inclement weather.
Esper was able to work out a deal with the company to bring along the weekly paper, which hits newsstands Thursdays. The Standard’s newspaperman said it’s an eerie scene in Silverton right now, with snow suffocating the town.
“Cabin fever is setting in,” Esper joked. “And there’s no end in sight. But it’s an adventure.”
Esper said Red Mountain Pass was closed in 2014 for three weeks after mudslides in the summer damaged the road.
Southwest Colorado’s snowpack is at 145 percent of historic averages as of Tuesday and more snow is on the way this week.
Mike McVaugh, Colorado Department of Transportation’s Southwest Colorado Regional Transportation director, said at a media briefing outside Ouray on Monday that the wet, heavy snow could make for a long haul digging out.
“It just makes a more dramatic, less safe environment for everybody to be working in,” McVaugh said.
Avalanche danger going forward depends on a few factors with weather conditions. But if temperatures rise and snow melts fast, even more slides could be on the way, Greene said.