The first thing that hits you before you arrive at the scene of a massive avalanche about three-quarters of the way up the popular Bear Creek Trail is the smell of pine trees. It’s not just the pleasant tang of pine common to many an area hike, but it is the powerful scent of acres and acres of fresh-hewn pine.
And then you see it. Trees — both aspens and conifers — are snapped like toothpicks everywhere you look, and an expanse of snow blanketed in pine needles and boughs stretches over the trail for about the length of a city block. The avalanche — which officials believe happened sometime in March or April — thundered down from the east side, high above the trail on the other side of the creek. It disgorged from La Junta Basin into a choke and over a sheer drop, taking with it trees, rocks and millions of tons of snow. Trees lay down before it as if in homage. It ran effortlessly down the cliff face, across Bear Creek, up the creek bank and over the trail, blowing down a stand of aspens to the west of the trail. It was over in a matter of seconds.
What remains, besides hundreds of broken trees, is about a 20-foot-deep area of compacted snow — about the length of a city block — and other debris. When the slide was fresh, its depth was likely closer to 50 feet, according to Josh Williams, who has been working on re-establishing the trail along its original alignment. The work should be completed this week.
Has anyone gone missing? “Probably some bunnies,” Williams said Tuesday morning as he made his way up the trail to continue his work.
“We had a crazy winter,” said Telluride’s projects manager Lance McDonald. What happened during that slide, he said, was “pretty impressive.”
Awed hikers have been filling social media with photos of the new landscape, which has completely wiped out the meadow where people had been erecting numerous rock cairns.
“They’re gone,” McDonald said, likening the aftermath to that of “an explosion.”
The scene is a familiar one in the San Juans following what was a remarkable winter. Backcountry enthusiasts — and winter-wise Ophir residents — are no strangers to the power of an avalanche. Avalanches take down power lines, block roads (an avalanche on I-70 this winter was recorded on one driver’s cellphone), and routinely take the lives of skiers and other backcountry enthusiasts. This winter, an avalanche triggered from above Bear Creek to the west killed a local man, Salvador Garcia-Atance, who was skinning up Bear Creek and was caught at the bottom of that slide. (The runoff area of that slide is further up the trail near the big rock.)
A drive over Red Mountain Pass reveals evidence of numerous avalanches that kept road crews struggling to keep the pass open for much of the winter.
The huge snow year of 2018-19 has had ripple effects on local events, including the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run, which announced it has been canceled due to lingering snowpack and other hazards for only the second time in its 27-year history. Race director Dale Garland cited “unprecedented avalanche debris, unstable snow bridges and high water levels” among the reasons for the cancellation of this year’s high altitude race. Garland said the Bear Creek avalanche debris factored into the decision. (See the full story on the Hardrock cancellation in this edition of the Daily Planet.)
The avalanche has been a hot topic online with some commenters remarking on the eradication of the large array of cairns that vexed some recreationists who decried the stone piles as tantamount to littering.
“Mother Nature sure has a powerful scrub brush that washed away the ‘graffiti’ in seconds,” wrote one commenter.
Another called the debris field “insane” and encouraged hikers to go it see for themselves.