Dangerous snow conditions in the San Juan Mountains resulted in five separate avalanches triggered by skiers over the weekend, which caught six people, carried three and buried two.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, avalanche conditions in the San Juan Mountains are “different right now than they have been for most of the winter.”
Calls to CAIC director Ethan Greene were not immediately returned Monday morning.
In a post on social media, the avalanche center said recent winter storms have “created the greatest hazard we’ve seen in many weeks.”
Since Wednesday, the mountains have received anywhere from 18 to 32 inches of new snow. South to southwest winds during and after the storm loaded north- and east-facing slopes, causing unstable snowpack.
On Friday, two skiers triggered an avalanche in the backcountry near Ophir, which partially buried one and completely buried the other. The partially buried skier was able to self-extricate, but there was no further information.
On Saturday, also near Ophir, a skier triggered an avalanche and was carried about 300 feet, ending up on top of the debris. The skier and their partner were able to self-rescue and ski out.
On Sunday, a skier caused an avalanche outside Silverton that carried the person 800 to 900 vertical feet, coming to a stop just above 30- to 40-foot cliff bands. The skier was not buried and was able to exit.
The CAIC posted there’s a common theme to the triggered slides: all were on northwest- and northeast-facing slopes steeper than 35 degrees and near treeline where a weak layer of snow formed during the dry spell at the end of February.
“This weak layer is now buried 2 to 4 feet deep,” the center posted. “This began to emerge as a problem in a series of smaller slides during the last few weeks, but up until the last storm, the slab was thin.”
The CAIC urges extreme caution when traveling into the backcountry. As of Monday, the avalanche danger in the San Juan’s was listed as moderate. The center says about 50% of avalanche fatalities in the state happen at moderate danger.
“There were numerous reports of skier and rider avalanche involvements over the weekend. Fortunately, none of these ended in tragedy, but many of the reported avalanches were big enough to injure or bury a person.”
The CAIC says with Colorado’s ski areas closed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, more people are skiing in the backcountry, raising the chances for triggered avalanches.