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The Stellar- Season 1, Coms 5

Snow Bunnies and Shred Hounds,

As the first month of 2020 closes, the Stellar reflects upon our season to date and we’ll consider some sobering stats.

Avalanche Danger dropped this past weekend and it’s evident from the ample tracks, appearing on some of the range’s biggest lines, that folks were ready to step it out.

However, this atypical, open season approach to our mountains in January, is a mindset we remain suspicious of….We are in San Juan’s after all and a recent spate of natural and rider triggered avalanches and near misses should make us all think twice before tickling the kitty.

It was a challenging and deadly January and we’re hoping to feel the love in February.

There’s terrific skiing, riding and climbing to be had. Please be safe out there.


As of Tuesday, February 4th, the Avalanche Danger for the North and South San Juans is Moderate at all Elevations and on all Aspects.

The CAIC lists the primary avalanche problem in both zones as Wind Slab on North thru East thru Southeast aspects Near and Above Treeline (NTL & ATL) A secondary, Persistent Slab problem remains on E>SE slopes NTL & ATL.

Our steadily dropping Avalanche danger has rebounded as stout winds and heavy snows hit our region Monday day (2/3) into Tuesday morning(2/4). Snowfall reports were varied- Molas 8 inches, Spud 6 inches, 5 ½ on RMP, 10 inches at Wolf Creek, 14 inches claimed at Silverton Ski Area. Watch for field reports and observations to see how the new storm load is behaving and reacting!

We’ve been watching East through South slopes struggle with a persistent slab problem both near and above tree line for the entire month of January. Snowpits on these suspect aspects continue to unveil multiple, crust facet combos in the upper pack and a robust, albeit stubborn, mid-pack slab. These problems have been slow to heal and now we’ve added additional weight upon these weak layers. Will this new snow load be enough to overburden these persistent problems? Will slides initiated in the new storm snow step down, producing larger and potentially more deadly avalanches? Hard telling, not knowing but for the foreseeable future, the CAIC suggests, using “caution on these aspects and it may be wise to simply avoid them altogether for a bit more time.”

The greater story right now is once again the wind:

“What a blasting we got yesterday! Southwest and south winds howled for over 30 hours with averages in the 30’s to 50’s and some gusts near Red Mountain Pass and Telluride in the 90’s. The highest was 107 mph at Eagle. South and southwest ridges and exposed terrain features are stripped bare and dense wind drifts have formed on north through east to southeast-facing slopes. With such high wind speeds expect drifts to have formed lower down than normal and in unusual places. We also don’t often find them sensitive to the weight of people but with such violent weather it’s important to stay on guard. Hard slabs are not to be trusted."

Bill Nalli, NSJ Fx Discussion 020420

Strong winds have transported new, low-density snow and this has led to the formation of dense slabs on north through east through southeast-facing slopes near and above treeline. Backcountry travelers should expect to encounter “drifting up to two feet thick below ridge tops and in cross-loaded terrain features.” We’ve seen loaded storm snow further down the slope than normal and in unusual places. Think about this when skinning and shredding BTL!

At all elevations, these new wind slabs sit upon a variety of old snow surfaces. The beefier the slab, the more stress that slab is adding to weaker snow below. Remember, shallow slides triggered below wind drifts have potential to step down into deeper weak layers. New snow will also create sluff management problems. Use caution on all slopes steeper than 30 degrees with six or more inches of new snow.

The backcountry is experiencing significant change in a short amount of time. Be patient and use the slow simmer of time to your advantage before getting rowdy out there!


Reading and Reflecting upon Accident Statistics is one way to improve our own Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain. As January ends, here are some sobering numbers to consider:

2019-20 Colorado Season to Date:

2 Colorado fatalities- one in Dec. and one in January

3 skiers caught- 2 buried, one killed

3 snowboarders caught- 1 buried

3 climbers/snowshoer/hikers caught- 1 buried, 1 killed

No Colorado snowmobile incidents to date

Over 350+ human-triggered slides reported to the CAIC in January

2019-20 US Season to Date:

13 avalanche deaths in the US

11 of those fatalities were in January

1/11-1/23 6 fatalities in less than two-week period

1/17-1/18 3 fatalities over MLK holiday weekend

2 Deadly In-bounds slides:

Silver Mountain in Idaho-Multiple skiers caught, 2 partially buried, 5 buried, 3 killed.

Alpine Meadows in California- 2 inbounds skiers caught, 1 injured, 1 killed

2 Uncommon/In-frequent incidents resulting in fatalities:

1/18 Climber killed north of Red Mountain Pass

1/23 Resident killed in roofalanche

2009-10 Season thru January 2020:

Over the last 10 winters (2009-2019), an average of 27 people have died in avalanches

Since 09-10 season, 115 backcountry/sidecountry riders, 25 climbers, 8 snowshoer/ hikers, 11 inbounds skiers & 85 snowmobilers have been killed by avalanches in the US

1950-51 Season thru January 2020:

Since record keeping began in the US in the 1950s, there have been 1,122 avy deaths

To date, we’ve recorded the following number of fatalities in each state-

(the dreaded top 10 deadliest states for avalanche fatalities list…)

289 CO/ 158 AK/ 131 WA/ 122 UT/ 121 MT/ 90 WY/ 82 ID/ 67 CA/ 19 OR/ 16 NH

Related January 2020 Media:

OutThere Colorado- A Deadly January- Magazine Article

Video of Farmington Canyon Accident- Utah Avalanche Center


Avalanche Safety training is incomplete without additional training in Wilderness Medicine (Wild Med). There’s nothing worse than having an avalanche victim recovered and on top of the snow and then not knowing what to do next. Rendering aid and facilitating basic patient care in the backcountry should be an expected prerequisite of any partner. Whether it’s a basic Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course, or a more advance Wilderness First Responder (WFR) or Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician training (WEMT), a Wild Med certification is an invaluable investment in you and your team’s safety.

With so many great Wild Med providers out there, it’s easy to find a course, price point and schedule that works for you. Check out upcoming local opportunities with Southwest Rescue, Wilderness Medic and Heart Safe La Plata

Here’s to a safe and snowy second half of 2019-2020 winter season. Get out there and get you some in February. And as always, wax side down, hairy side up and keep it stellar friends!


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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