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Early Season signs of Avalanche Hazards

Myth: It’s only October. there can’t be avalanches yet.
Fact: If there is a slope (greater than 28 degrees), a slab (mass of snow), a weak layer and a trigger, avalanches are possible.

The humid weather in Denver this past weekend clued me into the possible high moisture content in the snow falling up in Summit County.  After 3 days in the Front Range, I came home to the likeness of Sierra cement forming in my driveway.  I could ring water out from a snowball. Snow avalanches from the  roof. Inside I stoke the wood burning stove to warm my chilled bones.  Humm, signs of things to come. It’s not even Halloween yet.

Although it’s early season, it’s not to early for avalanches to occur.  And you don’t have to be an avalanche forecaster or mountain guide to determine if a slope is safe for travel.  Now is the time to start gathering information to help formulate an accurate picture of the snow pack as it develops throughout the winter.

In Breckenridge, at 9600 feet, the  temperature drops below freezing. For five days, it has been snowing in all flavors; wet, heavy, grapple, light and cold.  The snow is now blowing sideways. The wind picks up the new light snow and transports it across the street. Driving into town, a sheet of black ice under the new cold smoke snow shouts red flags.  If cars are skidding and sliding on the slick surface, what is the new light snow gonna do when it lands on the slopes up high?

Start your observations now.  Look around you. Gather clues from your local environment  ( the car windshield,  the roof, the roads),  check  avalanche forecast web sites /blogs and watch the weather channel for your favorite snow playground.  If there is a slope (greater than 28 degrees), a slab (a mass of consolidated snow), a weak layer (something that can fail with new stress added) and a trigger…the snow could slide.  Even with the early season shallow snowpack, be prepared with the knowledge and skills to travel safely in the backcountry.  Carry a beacon, shovel and probe in your pack and know how to use them effectively.  Start scoping out potential avalanche classes in your area or take an Introduction to the Backcountry course to get your feet wet.

Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself continuously throughout the winter:

  • What has been going on with the weather?
  • What’s happening now?
  • What is forecasted to happen?
  • Is there wind and how much? Wind loaded slopes can add stress to the snowpack.
  • Have we gotten any snow?
  • What are the characteristics of the new snow? Wet and warm or light and dry.
  • How is the new snow bonding with the old snow?
  • Do you see signs of avalanche activity?
  • Has there been any dramatic changes in temps that can cause stress to the snowpack?

Gather your clues, evaluate the information and travel smart.  We have a whole season in front of us.

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