Season’s Greetings Snowflakes!
It matters not whether you were naughty or nice in 2019, Santa left us all a big pile of holiday fresh under the tree. Deep snow and fantastic skiing seem an apropos way to end what is sure to be remembered as one of the most epic calendar years for snowfall and avalanches in the San Juan Mountains.
“We are slowly cooking up the perfect recipe for dangerous avalanches in the Southern Mountains. Newly formed slabs above buried persistent weak layers is the start. The final ingredients are a steep enough slope and adding the right trigger flavor and boom…an avalanche comes storming down. If you factor snow totals from the last storm with forecast snow totals from this storm, the new snow volume is concerning in itself. Avalanches triggered in the new or wind-drifted snow could be big enough to bury you without steeping down to deeper weak layers.”
Chris Bilbrey, CAIC Fx Discussion- Fri, Dec 27, 2019
As of Tuesday, Dec 31st, The CAIC posted the Avalanche Danger Rating, for both the North and South San Juans as MODERATE near and above treeline and LOW below treeline. With holiday precipitation events now in the rear view, storm slab problems have acquiesced to wind and persistent slab problems throughout range.
Nothing that happens quickly in the mountains is ever good.
Mother Nature likes things on a slow simmer.
Events that unfold quickly in the backcountry are dangerous.
The temperature changes rapidly…..that’s bad.
Heavy snowfall rapidly accumulates….that’s also bad.
The winds pick up rapidly….that’s bad too!
The snowboarder tumbles rapidly down the gully…..
You get the picture.
Nothing that happens quickly in the mountains is ever good!
Gorgeous weather leading up to Christmas allowed our snowpack to slowly gain strength. Weaker layers began exhibiting positive metamorphic change as persistent problems began to mute. Gradual warming and pleasant temps near and below treeline gave us hope for a more stable future. The pack was presenting as “right side up.” Backcountry travelers were slowly poking into steeper terrain and as skier confidence rose, CAIC danger ratings started to fall.
And then it started to snow…. Rapidly.
Back to back Christmas storms buried the San Juans. Storm totals were impressive as these precip events heavily favored Southwest, Colorado:
“Storm totals since 12/24 are impressive. 20 to 30 inches with 2.1” snow water equivalent (SWE) in the north. 20 to 40 inches with over 4” SWE in the south. The eastern portion of the range near Slumgullion Pass picked up 26 inches and the Sangre’s a little less than that.”
Rapidly loaded slopes gave riders a new cause for concern; Storm slabs were our primary problem for the 72hrs following the storm. However, this new load was light and the additional precipitation did not prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. We didn’t see a natural cycle and CDOT’s recent blasting efforts on 550 yielded few results. Overall, the snowpack managed the load as skiers managed the sluff.
And then the winds picked up…..rapidly.
With all the fetch available for transport in the alpine, our storm snow has now been blown all over tarnation and beefy wind slabs have formed on Northeast through Southeast through Southern aspects in the Northern San Juans. The southern part of the range did not experience as robust a wind event, but isolated wind slab problems are for sure lurking all over the range.
And let’s not forget that pesky, persistent slab problem that continues to haunt us on Northwest through East through Southeast aspects, near and above treeline in both the North and Southern mountains. Temps dropped rapidly over the weekend and these well-preserved problems persist, albeit stubbornly.
Micro storm slab on the Minnehaha Road, 12/29/19
As our snowpack continues to add depth and complexity, think about the speed at which the backcountry is experiencing change. If environmental factors develop rapidly, it’s time to slow down your movements and decision making. Patience is the name of the game and although the riding remains stellar below treeline, exercise caution before acting with haste.
Remember, slow is smooth and smooth is fast!
Introduced in 2017, Avalanche Rescue is a one-day, stand-alone course that goes further in depth on backcountry rescue techniques. We encourage everyone to take an Avy Rescue Course with us here in Silverton!
Recently, the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) dropped a series of instructional rescue videos that are a great resource. So gather your teammates, watch these videos, come train with us in Silverton and practice, practice, practice those rescue skills!
How to Practice Avalanche Rescue Skills
How to Practice Avalanche Rescue- Snowmobile Edition
How to Practice for your A3 PRO 1 Rescue Exam
It’s warmer and nicer in the trees…..seriously!
The riding below treelilne right now is amazing. Winds have done little to affect BTL slopes and skier traffic on the passes has focused on the most popular, heavily used runs and zones.
BUT, for those willing to stretch their legs a bit, break some trail and look beyond the momentum of the masses, absolutely mind-blowing turns are to be found pretty much everywhere. Put those Caltopo skills to use and sniff out your own little pocket of goodness in this magnificent range.
All this wiggling and giggling in the trees seems a fitting end to such a historic year.
Wishing you all tasty turns, big smiles and crusher pow in 2020!
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 avyschool.org or Contact Us at firstname.lastname@example.org