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The Stellar- Season 1, Coms 1

Welcome to Winter

And just like that, it’s winter once again in the San Juan mountains.

Backcountry travelers are starting to stretch their legs off-piste and riders report fantastic conditions throughout the range.

BUT, It’s still very early in our season. Problems have developed in our snowpack with skiers and snowshoers experiencing some close calls recently. Colorado logged its first fatality on Dec 8th and with more snow in the forecast, adventurers throughout the state need to stay focused and alert.


“The bottom line is that our snowpack has some complexity to it. Different weak layers and variable snow depths make for tricky conditions. In the deepest areas the snowpack is showing some signs of promise and strengthening. If it continues to snow, we may eventually have less concerns with basal weak layers. However, it’s still too early to determine and caution is advised. Without a careful snowpack evaluation, paying attention to general snow depth, weak layer type and reactivity, you should consider simply avoiding steep slopes that face a northerly or east aspect.”

Chris Bilbrey, CAIC Fx Discussion- Tue, Dec 10, 2019

As of Wednesday Dec 11th, The CAIC bulletin for the North San Juans listed the Avalanche Danger Rating at Moderate at all elevations. The South San Juans were listed at Moderate danger near and above treeline and Low danger below treeline. Both zones have a primary, persistent slab problem on Northwest through North through East facing slopes near and above treeline.

Last weekend, winter arrived in earnest with a fresh load of light snow. We’ve observed newly formed weak layers in the upper snowpack. Rotting October snow is still lurking at the bottom of our snowpack on northerly aspects. For sure, these are classic early season concerns for us here in the San Juans. Winds have also picked up in recent days and transported snow in the alpine. This presents us with a secondary problem to consider when encountering specific wind loaded features up high.

Although there’s hope for improvement in the coming days, “Any slope harboring weak snow below a thick slab is a dangerous combination and the perfect recipe for avalanches.” These slabs are likely to be triggered in shallow spots in the snowpack, around geology and vegetation and on the edges of the slab where coverage is thinnest.


When completing your initial tours this winter, contemplate what mindset you want to take with you into the backcountry. Professionals use the Strategic Mindset model and it’s a useful tool for recreationalists to think about and incorporate into their trip planning and decision making.

Right now, (and for many periods throughout the winter) Silverton Avalanche School faculty operate within an ASSESSMENT mindset. Applying this strategy, coupled with conservative terrain and travel choices, allows us the opportunity for deeper exploration into the mountains on our quest for more data and quality turns.

Are You Reading the Story of the Winter?

To increase safety, gain information and make more informed terrain decisions, backcountry recreationalists are encouraged to follow the winter’s narrative each and every day.

How do I Read the Story?

You read the daily avalanche bulletin, forecast discussions and field observations on the CAIC’s website. North San Juans can be found here. South San Juans can be found here.

You track precipitation and weather events, noting these occurrences as chapters of the winter’s story. The National Weather Service and Local Telemetry Sites are essential for this.

You try to find these different chapters, buried in the snowpack when touring out in the backcountry.

Your make more field observations every time you’re out in the mountains- which may or may not align with what’s been reported in recent bulletins and forecast discussions.

You seek continued training and education which helps you further refine your ability to read the story and incorporate additional resources.

Reading the Story Motivates Us to Get Outside!

The more time we can spend out in the mountains, reading, observing and tracking the ever-unfolding winter narrative, the greater our resolution and comprehension of this season’s story will be.

And like every good tale, the story of the 2019-2020 winter will quickly become complex as the scene is set, characters are developed, the plot thickens, the action crescendos and finally resolves.


It’s often said that in the San Juan mountains, there’s a touring season and then there’s a ski season. When encountering terrain early in winter, we must approach and interface with that topography with a high degree of uncertainty. Local forecasts, daily bulletins and field observations provide us with valuable information and are often the cause for hope, despair and anticipated changes to the snowpack.

When Stability is the Question, TERRAIN is the answer; Travel smart and travel safe!


The Stellar is a collaboration between Silverton Avalanche School and the Friends of the San Juans. These periodic communications are designed to be an educational resource for FOSJ members and are not intended to supplant avalanche bulletins, danger ratings and one’s own personal responsibility for backcountry travel choices and decision making. Silverton Avalanche School encourages all of FOSJ’s members to join us for additional snow and safety trainings. Learn More at or Contact Us at

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