Snowshoers had a close call Saturday after being caught in an avalanche on Red Mountain Pass in the San Juan Mountains.
“They triggered a slide that ran down on top of them,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “And it took them for a ride.”
A snowstorm that started before Thanksgiving brought much-needed snow to Southwest Colorado: Before the storm, snowpack in the basin was around 60% of historic averages. As of Tuesday, however, snowpack was at more than 100% of the norm for this time of year.
But the welcome snowfall also set up the “perfect recipe for avalanches,” Greene said.
In the past few days in the San Juan Mountains, there have been 21 naturally caused avalanches reported to the CAIC (and that’s just reported slides), and an additional six avalanches triggered by skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers.
Greene said snow in October set up a weak base layer of snowpack, which was made even more fragile during a dry November. So when last week’s storm dropped a couple of feet of snow on top of that unstable layer, it wasn’t a surprise when avalanche activity picked up.
“That’s why we issued an avalanche warning,” Greene said.
Still, there were a handful of close calls the past few days.
On the east side of Red Mountain Pass on Saturday, two snowshoers triggered a slide that was 40 feet wide and ran down the mountain for about 80 feet. The CAIC reported they were caught in the slide but were able to stay on top of the snow and self-rescue without injuries.
Also on Saturday near Wolf Creek Pass, an avalanche caused by snowmobilers occurred in the Lane Creek drainage. The crown, the CAIC reported, was 1 to 3 feet deep and about 75 to 100 feet wide.
“It didn’t run very far, but it was a high-consequence terrain trap,” according to the observation report.
Greene said one of the biggest risks right now traveling into the backcountry is causing a “remote triggered” avalanche – when you’re in an area not steep enough for a slide, but your movement starts to fracture the snow and begin the avalanche process either below or above you.
And when it happens to start above you, you’re in danger, like in the case of the snowshoers, Greene said.
“You need to be conscious of the terrain you’re connected to,” he said.
Snowpack starts to strengthen after a storm passes, so the avalanche danger in recent days has gone down from high to moderate, but backcountry travelers should still exercise caution and check condition forecasts.
“We’re not seeing avalanches happen every time people touch the snow like we did right after the storm, but we still have a weak layer and tricky conditions,” Greene said.
And it appears another storm is on its way that could drop nearly a foot of new snow in the San Juans.
Erin Walter, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said a storm will enter Southwest Colorado on Wednesday and is expected to last until late Thursday, which could drop 5 to 10 inches in the high country of the San Juan Mountains.
In Durango, that same storm will mostly drop moisture in the form of a rain-snow mixture, with the best chance for snow accumulation overnight Wednesday into Thursday. It’s possible 1 to 3 inches of snow could accumulate, Walter said.