Too much snow.
Too much wind.
Protypically fragile continental snowpack in the San Juan Mountains - known throughout the world for their avalanche
Mix them together.
Throw in some dramatic temperature gradient changes.
And you have the San Juan backcountry curse that goes glove-in-glove with the blessing of the enticing, deep
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center has issued an avalanche warning for the San Juan Mountains. Heavy snow fell
on a weak snowpack. High winds have created dense reactive wind slabs on a variety of aspects Numerous natural
avalanches have been
reported. The avalanche danger is high, and
travel in avalanche terrain is not
This statement, circulated via the National Weather Service, was released Tuesday morning - the first of many similar
avalanche warnings that will be issued for the San Juan Mountains this winter.
By Thursday, the avalanche report for the San Juans called the backcountry danger considerable," one notch below the
high danger" rating of earlier this week.
Human-triggered slides are probable on slopes steeper than 30 degrees with old sugary snow near the ground. Stick to
low-angled slopes without steeper terrain above.
With one snow in October, one or two more in November, we have a layer of (depth) hoar sugar snow," said Nate
Disser, the director and head guide of Southwest Adventure Guides in Durango.
There is no question that we have that (depth hoar), and that sets up for a treacherous snowpack," said Disser, who is
certified in avalanche training and
And now, people are pumped to get out there (in the backcountry)," Disser said. They're waxing their skis, checking
the batteries on their transceivers they're planning trips."
Enter the human factor.
Human-triggered slides are probable
In this snowpack, you've got to be conservative," said Disser, stressing that the decisions backcountry users make
today, Saturday, Sunday and beyond can make the difference between a great outing and tragedy.
The unstable, sugary snow at the base of the snowpack is weak and vulnerable to the gravity forces of the heavy, new
snow. Avalanches are the obvious result with recent activity on Wolf Creek Pass, Red Mountain Pass, Molas Pass and Coal
Bank Pass as timely evidence.
It could be a recipe for disaster if people aren't following good, safe backcountry protocols," Disser said.
Decision-making in the backcountry is paramount to safety, to survival, he said.
Using established methods of sound decision-making in the backcountry is absolutely key," said Disser, who has skied
and studied the San Juan snow extensively for the last eight winters.
A backcountry enthusiast who cut his teeth in the Adirondacks, the Catskills and the White Mountains of New Hampshire
(Tuckerman's Ravine), Disser has worked as a guide in Alaska and Washington. He's worked on Mount Rainier and on Mount
He's led climbing trips in Peru and Ecuador. He's certified as a rock-climbing guide and an alpine guide.
He's led Southwest Adventure Guides in Durango for the last six years. The company will mark its 21st year of operation
And he's more convinced than ever that education and training are the foundations to make safe backcountry
In fact, the Level 1 avalanche courses offered through Southwest Adventure Guides are titled Decision-Making in
The course and the subsequent Level 2 courses are certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and
A variety of Level 1, Level 2 and Level 1 Refreshers are offered through Disser and his certified guides this
Additional courses, as discussed last week, also are available locally through the Silverton Avalanche School.
A formal avalanche course will give you the knowledge to make decisions in the backcountry," Disser said, adding that
most backcountry enthusiasts in the San Juans have a healthy respect for the mountains and the accompanying avalanche
But more and more people are venturing out with the increasing popularity of backcountry skiing and boarding and the
corresponding improvements in backcountry equipment.
Plus, he said, there is incredible access in the San Juans where a major highway traverses some of the best backcountry
terrain in the United States.
We have the best concentration of backcountry skiing in the state," Disser said.
It's an exceptional area of the backcountry."
He and his guides are dedicated to keeping the backcountry experience safe, he said.
Decision-making can be a matter as simple as what are we going to ski today," Disser said. Or, what are we not going
to ski today, he said.