Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Winter blizzard creates lethal slab avalanche conditions

Winter blizzard creates lethal slab avalanche conditions, I skied Summit County on April 21st, 2013, and hiked Professor ridge line west of Loveland Pass.

Snow fall after the April 8th blizzards had deposited approximately 4+ feet of new heavy snow over portions of the Continental Divide.

I dug a pit some 4 feet down and saw no real disconforming layers, had my beacon and cell phone, and was ready to ride. On a whim, I decided since I'd already dug the darn pit, I might as well look a bit further to see if there was any disconformity down lower.

A foot lower I hit a layer of hard ice and not sugar. I thought this a bit strange, and surmised that maybe before the April 8th blizzard there must have been a warm day that may have melted the subsurface snow layer I was staring at, and then on April 8th, while I was chasing tornadoes and noticed a 50 degree temperature drop in an alarming 20 minutes, the same maybe had occurred up here fast freezing the existing layer into surface ice as the system moved in, which possibly then was immediately covered by three days of snow deposition amounting to some 4+ feet.

I got sort of a weird vibe looking where I was planning to ski, thinking, it's a steep ice rink under there, so decide to bail on that particular spot, and went to A-basin which was just awesome skiing. Pure luck, I was not planning to dig an inch further.

Afterwards, I went with some back country free riders to examine the lethal avalanche area that had then occurred the day before (when I had been planning to ski near that same area) off Loveland Pass, just east of the right hair pin turn on the north side of the pass.

When I walked into the area, I got a cold lesson in the lethal power of a slab avalanche ending in a terrain trap.

At this point, I would like to add I have read a number of articles about the free riders, sort of knew one from Bouder too (ouch), and had a real gut check personally, because at least those guys were following all the rules, beacons, safety, safety partners even using avalungs and avy flotation devices.

All I had that day was a beacon, backpack, shovel, extra mittons, water, compass, power bar, first aid kit, hand warmers, cell phone, helmet, and what I was wearing as ski equipment, as I said they were far better prepared, and were practicing safety protocols. I was just digging, and dropping in. I am so sorry for their loss.

After seeing their area, only four hours after the last victim was recovered, I knew I had to write about this, and to share my pictures. Back country people, at least on that aspect right now, where no one is pounding the slopes with 20lb bombs to find and release instability, the conditions, even to this day are unbelievably lethal.

In my last 20 years of back country skiing each year, I have not seen such a lethal slab avalanche, at least not here in Colorado. Things may change, by my guess is not anytime soon, at least not for a few weeks.

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