Backcountry risks

 A search and rescue debriefing in Ophir after a backcountry user triggered an avalanche Tuesday. (Photo by Bria Light/Telluride Daily Planet) 

Though the lifts have stopped spinning and the restaurants are devoid of hot chocolate sippers, that hasn’t stopped many locals from slapping skins on their skis and slogging uphill in pursuit of those fluffy downhill turns. Since Telluride Ski Resort finished closure operations last week, the ski area, as well as surrounding backcountry terrain, has been popular among backcountry ski users. 

Since the resort terrain is no longer being patrolled or mitigated to reduce avalanche risk, it is now classified as backcountry terrain, and skiers should use proper gear and practices accordingly. In these difficult times, as some people struggle to adapt to restrictions on recreating and socializing, outdoor pursuits such as backcountry skiing have represented an emotional lifeline for many within what is an active community.

“The emotional value can’t be underestimated,” said Julia Hughes, a Mountain Village resident and bartender at Tracks prior to restaurant closures, who has skied the resort the past six of seven days since it officially opened to uphill traffic. “Everyone up there is just so happy to be there, expressing how glad they are to be free of the weirdness and the stress of the quarantine.”

She added that everyone she has met “is still respecting the six-foot rule and taking risk management seriously.”

In nearby communities where backcountry skiing has long been popular, residents have also observed an increase in skiers in the area. Not surprisingly, given the statewide closure of all ski resorts, it is a trend that has occurred wherever there is backcountry to be skied.

Matt Cooperstein, an avalanche and weather forecaster at the Boulder office of the Colorado Avalanche and Information Center, explained that while exact numbers are hard to come by, “there definitely seems to be, at least anecdotally, more people in the backcountry, and more people using the ski areas that are still allowing uphill travel to get out and recreate.”

While getting some fresh air and fresh powder can provide a much-needed stress reliever and an endorphin boost, backcountry skiing and snowboarding is still an inherently risky activity due to avalanche risks. All participants, officials stress, should be confident in their ability to assess conditions and use their avalanche gear, and strongly consider impacts on community health care providers in the event of an accident before deciding to ski.

This week, incidents of skier-triggered avalanches spiked in the area due to the recent storms, which deposited a new layer of snow on top of old snow that had been heavily affected by previous warm temperatures. This combination of environmental factors creates what snow safety forecasters call a “persistent layer,” basically a weakness between layers of old and new snow, the result of a lack of bonding between the sun-affected old layer and the heavy storm slab of new snow. Though many other factors apply in determining the stability of a slope — such as temperature, aspect, wind factors and time elapsed since new snowfall — an avalanche can occur when the weight of a skier cutting across the surface of the snow is enough to destabilize the storm slab, detaching it from the bottom layer and causing the top layers to crack and slide down the slope.

With these recent storms, Cooperstein said, a persistent weak layer has emerged in the snowpack, and he urged backcountry users to be especially aware of conditions and decision-making.

“The things that people really need to be aware of are that areas that are shallow, especially northwest- and west-facing aspects, now have a slab on them. So you can trigger pretty wide avalanches in those areas that break deeper in the snowpack,” he said. “That’s a really critical thing to be aware of. So look for cracking and collapsing, and a shallow snowpack less than four feet deep. And look for weak-faceted snow either in the middle or the bottom of the snowpack.” 

He also noted that the weak layer is called persistent for a reason; it’s not going to go away overnight, and will take time and the right weather conditions to stabilize.

In the meantime, snow safety experts are urging backcountry skiers to be especially cautious during these times when the health care system is already strained with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matt Steen, who is the director of snow safety for Telluride Helitrax, said the most important tool to help skiers make safe decisions is the daily local avalanche forecast, which can be found on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website (avalanche.state.co.us) by navigating to the Northern San Juan region.

“I think that starting with reading the forecast, and then using that info to make smart decisions in the backcountry, is the goal,” Steen said. “And not only reading it, but heeding it. Either avoid it, or investigate and make appropriate terrain choices.”

He stressed that this is a time when people need to be considering the greater good as well as the impact that incidents can have on rescuers who are also supposed to abide by social distancing guidelines.

“It’s an over-and-over re-evaluation of your plan at all these little turning points,” Steen said of backcountry touring. “If you’re walking out the door in the morning and you don’t know what the avalanche problem is and where you’re going to find it, you’re walking out the door with a loaded gun. Try not to tax our rescue and health system right now. Reel it in, and be thoughtful about all your decision making processes.”

San Miguel County Commissioner Lance Waring also emphasized the need for community-oriented decision-making, including the decision not to ski the backcountry right now.

“We are requesting skiers to refrain, particularly in Ophir, for the greater good,” Waring, himself a backcountry skiing aficionado, saidx. “We need to not risk stretching our community medical systems during this time of emergency. The snowpack is tender right now. This is a very sincere request not to venture into the backcountry.”

On a positive note, he said, “Nordic skiing at Trout and Priest lakes is excellent right now, and the Valley Floor is still manageable.”