snow

San Miguel County crews plowed Imogene Pass Road in Savage Basin above town of Tomboy recently. At higher elevations, snowpack is still significant, which can create dangerous conditions for backcountry enthusiasts. (Photo courtesy of Dennis Overly and Speed Miller)

Summer in the mountains began a little differently this year. Heavy late season snowfall in May and early June extended the ski season both in the backcountry and resorts and set Colorado snowpack at record levels.

According to the most recent National Resources Conservation snow survey Friday, Colorado still officially has snowpack. This is the longest into the summer that the state has held snowpack on the ground in more than a decade.

Here in the San Juan Mountains, snow is melting off more quickly than some northern regions, but snowpack in late May was 302 percent of its average levels. The high snowpack helped end Colorado’s 20-month long drought and reduced the risks of wildfires, which decimated parts of the region last summer. 

Though good for Mother Nature, the long lasting snow can create challenging conditions for high alpine hikers and backpackers. Particularly on north facing slopes and trails about 11,000 feet, deep snow still persists. The San Juan National Forest is still issuing an alert about snow conditions.

“After a tremendous amount of snowfall over the winter months, high levels of water runoff continue to impact roads and trails. Visitors should anticipate encountering washouts, debris piles, and other conditions that make travel impossible,” the alert reads.

Normally hikeable trails pose adverse conditions. On June 18, the father of a visiting hiker called San Miguel County Search and Rescue to report that his son had gotten lost on the Sneffels Highline Trail after sustaining a serious fall. According to the Sheriff’s Office report, the family, visiting from Texas, had set out together, but when the group hit heavy snowpack, the father and daughter turned around. 

Around 1:30 p.m., the father received a call from his son saying that he had fallen and was bleeding from a laceration on his head. SAR alerted volunteers and managed to “ping” the man’s phone to track his progress. The man made it to the Jud Wiebe trailhead, where EMS took him to the Telluride Fire Station, then Telluride Regional Medical Center and eventually to Grand Junction for an overnight assessment.

On the Sneffels Highline Trail, the man said that the snow went up to his knees in certain sections. According to the report, “The young man was more severely injured than initially described and possibly hypothermic. … EMS and SAR personnel felt this young man was very lucky to have made it out of this accident alive. His fitness, training, ability to remain calm and willpower to keep moving is likely what got him out.”

Even some of the most hardcore trail runners are deterred by this year’s late snowpack. The annual Hardrock 100 Endurance run, which usually takes place in mid-July, was cancelled this summer due to heavy snowpack, debris from last winter’s avalanches and concerns over new potential slides.

Still, the late snowpack is also creating options for different types of technical adventures. Telluride Mountain Trip is still leading all of its usual local excursions.

Mountain Trip guide Kaylee Walden explained that the company’s guides are experienced with glacier and snow climbing, including mountaineering on Denali.

“It’s kind of cool because it’s an opportunity to teach snow climbing techniques to people,” she said. 

Mountain Trip led a group up Wilson Peak, the popular fourteener on Friday. In some ways, the snowpack actually makes some of the high alpine treks easier. Few visitors are experienced walking on scree and can be more comfortable on packed snow, Walden explained.

“Scree is loose and unpredictable. Snow is more reliable. On top of that, our guides can use the snow to their advantage by chopping steps,” she said. 

For people who are experienced navigating snow, higher peaks are generally in good condition, but adventurers should still be aware of avalanche risks. “Summer snowpack is a little less complex, but avalanche risk is still something to keep in mind,” Walden said.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the summer snowpack levels could still create wet slab avalanches.

In an incident report from the week of June 17-23, the report warns, “A hiker or skier/snowboarder may still get buried by an avalanche, swept into trees or off a cliff. People traversing under slide zones on foot, on a bike or in a vehicle should use caution due to falling snow, ice and rock.”

At lower elevations, the snow poses more of a challenge, as it is melting quickly, which means slow going and postholing.        

Current trail conditions vary. Walden reported that popular trails up Bridal Veil are still fairly snowy. Blue Lake is navigable, but the lake is still covered. Columbine is still very snowy and Ice Lake and Island Lake are not quite accessible due to high snow from heavy avalanches this winter. The hike to Ajax is passable, but Walden cautioned that there’s one challenging section near the mining debris where there is a thin snow bridge hikers have to traverse. Lower down, Local’s Wiebe (Owl Gulch) is dry. Hope Lake is also manageable, though the creek crossing has very high water.

“We don’t want to encourage people to go out and do specific things because there’s always an inherent risk,” she said, adding if people are interested in specific reports or have questions to call Mountain Trip directly 970-369-1153.

While some traditional high alpine terrain is atypical for this time of year, Telluride residents still find creative ways for new adventures. Local James Ostrow and a group of friends are still managing to get in some late season skiing, explaining they went above Crystal Lake over Ophir Pass on Wednesday evening. Though the conditions were no January powder day, Ostrow isn’t complaining.

“It’s pretty sun cupped, but it’s skiing in July. It’s just good to get out,” he said.