Random Banter about Current Conditions and Recent Events

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Random Banter about Current Conditions and Recent Events

Postby JBella » Mon Jan 21, 2019 4:26 pm

Earlier today a backcountry skier was killed in an avalanche in the Express Creek area near Ashcroft, Colorado. This is the eighth avalanche death in the Rockies this season. Another fatality occurred on January 18th near Clear Creek, Utah. Also on Friday the 18th an inbounds Avalanche occurred at Loveland Ski Area along I-70, in a closed area known as Avalanche Bowl. It is believed two skiers crossed a rope to enter that area and triggered the slide, after an extensive search the area was cleared and no one was believed to have been buried. On January 5th six people who were participating in an AAIRE level two avalanche class were caught in a combination of two slides on Red Mountain Pass, one person was completely buried and killed.

Each of these regions has a distinct snowpack with variables which are different from one place to another, but they all hold one common trait - a dry, multi-layered intercontinental snowpack. Reports from these areas show similar snowpack problems as what we currently have here in Taos, including observations of dense storm slabs hanging delicately above incohesive buried depth hoar. These conditions are fairly typical for the midseason in the Rockies, though it's been a few years since we've seen a snowpack in the Taos region that has been showing consistently precarious issues. Last year was exceptionally dry until February and avalanches were not a concern until then, the two seasons before that brought intermittent times of elevated avalanche potential but also times of unexpected reasonably stable conditions which allowed us to ride some big lines during months we usually wouldn't. This season is proving to be one to be very diligent and careful, to choose routes cautiously and spend some time researching areas and familiarizing with the terrain and topography before attempting any unfamiliar routes.

As well as practicing search and rescue techniques with beacons and efficient shoveling. The response to the K3 avalanche was timely and shows the TSV Patrol was prepared for such an event, they had several probes on hand and quickly organized a bunch of people who didn't all know eachother, to perform a rescue according to recently established protocol. That amazes me, though it shouldn't knowing how much time they spend on that mountain, they should definitely be acknowledged for their preparation and confidant response.

The number one way to avoid avalanche incidents is to avoid entering avalanche terrain, which as most of us know is impossible in the Taos mountains. There is avalanche terrain everywhere from the mouth of Hondo Canyon all the way up to the Bavarian and into the Williams Lake basin. It's unavoidable, just driving up the canyon requires driving through hundreds of avalanche paths that could hit the road. The Twining parking lot sits beneath several drainages which, given the right conditions, could slide to the bottom. Much of the Village of Taos Ski Valley is beneath or within avalanche terrain, I know of two houses which have been hit by avalanches and have spent time studying several more which I believe could be. Some of the few areas which could be considered "safe" zones, mostly flat meadows on high points, require travelling through several potential avalanche paths to reach. I believe there are several ancient avalanche paths which have not slid for a long time, and are completely treed and holding thick 100+ year old forests. These paths are evident when studying the topography and looking at signs of historic events such as drainage and stream paths, and where rocks tend to gravitate to. Last week Rj and I were touring up the William's Lake trail and noticed where the trail crosses a flat area, roughly near the bottom of the Hidden Chute (which I believe is the culprit) several large, old growth trees are flagged on the eastern side while all of the younger, smaller trees in that area aren't. It appears that sometime prior to 1960 there may have been an historic slide that ran much farther than I'd previously thought possible in that chute, we discussed the topographic features and it could be possible. That chute is generally not steep, it's a long, narrow gully, at places almost flat, with a short steep pitch near the bottom. If the upper slope was loaded by an easterly wind event and/or strong storm dropping deep amounts of heavy Spring snow, and it slid, in theory all that snow would be funneled into a gully, run onto the last short but steep pitch then be shot out well onto the flats. If you are on that trail check out the older trees, it's after the moderately uphill forested section after crossing the Fingers, just before the trail climbs a short step to the first of the three boulder fields before reaching the saddle by the lake.

This is definitely turning out to be a season to consider risks and benefits of attempting any line. The forecast for the near future shows cold temperatures and a series of storms appears to be lining up. It is possible that couple big storms could trigger a natural avalanche cycle which could help remediate some of the known issues, in some areas, I can't tell yet if the incoming storms will be strong or not. Until that happens, and even if it does it may be important to avoid the powder fever, be willing to chill out and take a few breaths before making any decisions in the backcountry. And inbounds, most of the terrain at Taos is either skied out or closed, there's still some areas which haven't had much skier traffic where it's possible to find loose, unconsolidated snow covering all the downed trees and rocks strewn about those mountainsides.
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Re: Random Banter about Current Conditions and Recent Events

Postby Bob » Tue Jan 22, 2019 2:30 am

I don’t have any current observations to offer because I’ve been sidelined for about a month by some personal stuff. But what I was seeing near Santa Fe in early and mid-December was like what JBella described - facets, crusts, and slabs - and the reports I’ve been hearing bear out his cautionary thoughts.

I wish I could get out now for snowpack checking, but I know a lot more people read here than post and I suspect some of them might have some thoughts and observations about what they might be seeing and finding.

But mostly everyone should know that a lot of classic runs around here might very well be a hazard right now. Analyze the conditions carefully, keep track of the weather effects, and be around for later when things are safer.
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