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CAIC issues avalanche watches for much of Colorado as deadly month continues

Four people already killed in avalanches this month
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Posted at 9:45 PM, Dec 28, 2020

DENVER – Avalanche watches are in effect for most of Colorado’s backcountry zones and high avalanche danger is expected early this week in what has already been one of the deadliest months in Colorado’s backcountry in history.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued avalanche watches for nine of the state’s 10 backcountry forecast zones Monday – all but the Grand Mesa zone – with snow falling Monday morning in the mountains and expected to continue through Tuesday.

Avalanche danger was rated as “considerable” in eight of the zones across the state and “moderate” in the Steamboat & Flat Tops and Sangre de Cristo zones on Monday.

But the CAIC said that it expects those ratings to move to “high” – the second most-severe level on the scale – on Tuesday as snow continues to fall in the High Country, which could see between 2 and 12 inches of snow in this storm depending on elevation.

There have been four people killed in avalanches across Colorado over the past two weeks and more than 430 avalanches reported statewide since the beginning of the month.

On Dec. 18, a skier was killed in an avalanche on the northeast end of the Anthracite Range, in an area locally referred to as Friendly Finish west of Crested Butte in Gunnison County.

On Dec. 19, the bodies of two backcountry skiers were found buried in avalanche debris in an area locally known as the Battleship, southeast of Ophir Pass in San Juan County.

And on Saturday, a solo skier was killed in an avalanche First Creek Drainage of Berthoud Pass.

The CAIC said Monday that December 2020 will go down as among the deadliest months in recordkeeping history for avalanches. There have been only six months since 1950 – when modern avalanche recordkeeping began – when four people were killed in the same month in Colorado avalanches.

CAIC Director Ethan Greene said Colorado saw more human-triggered avalanches in a one-week span than they have in any week over the past 10 years.

There have been five avalanches so far this year – all occurring in the past two weeks – that have caught people inside them – three of which were deadly.

Soft slab and persistent slab avalanches have caused the deaths so far this year and have been widespread in the High Country because of the way the snowpack developed so far this season – with a weak layer that formed in November during a drier period leading the heavier snow that has fallen in the weeks since often being the fail point.

The CAIC has been advising people not to travel into the backcountry if they are not prepared with proper avalanche equipment and training, and to avoid terrain on, above and below slopes greater than 30 degrees, which are most prone to avalanches.

There has been worry that the poor snow conditions early in the season, combined with more people venturing into the backcountry because of limitations at Colorado ski resorts because of COVID-19, could lead to more avalanche injuries and fatalities this year.

“Everybody can expect to see widespread avalanche danger over the state tomorrow,” Greene said. “There are certainly places we can go to ski and snowmobile tomorrow safely, but you’re going to have to choose those routes really carefully.”

“This is shaping up to be not a very good avalanche season and so we are really hoping we can turn that around in Colorado,” Greene said.

There were six people killed in avalanches in the 2019-20 season, eight during the 2018-19 season, three in the 2017-18 season and one in the 2016-17 season.

Denver7's Sean Towle contributed to this report.