Snow

A skier floats through fresh February powder at Telluride Ski Resort. The area reported 70 inches of snow during the month. (Photo courtesy of Telluride Ski Resort)

The good skiing conditions, the bad avalanche conditions and the ugly driving conditions are here to stay.

Weather forecasters indicate bountiful snowfall will continue in the San Juan Mountains. Avalanche forecasters predict exponentially increasing danger in the Telluride area.

Highway officials anticipate travel disruptions and pass closures this week on the heels of recent closures on Red Mountain Pass and Lizard Head Pass — avalanche and avalanche-control closures.

THE GOOD

“The snow is certainly night and day compared to a year ago,” said Jon Tukman, snow safety supervisor at Telluride Ski Resort. “(February) is substantially above the average.”

Tukman said the resort received 70 inches of snow last month.

“That’s 23 inches above (the 40-year average),” he said, “… almost two feet.”

Describing last winter as the worst in 30 years, Tukman said the resort was unable to open Palmyra Peak and the upper Gold Hill Chutes a year ago.

“This year,” he said, “is on the happy side.”

All the terrain is open, including Palmyra and the Gold Hill Chutes, but contrary to circulating reports, February did not see a record snowfall at Telluride Ski Resort.

That’s reserved for 2007-08 in the modern era of ski stats.

“We had 90 inches that February,” Tukman said, referencing the relentless powder of 2007-08 in the San Juan Mountains — just two years removed from the disastrously dry 2005-06 ski season.

He said Telluride also has had two other 70-inch February snowfalls in the last decade.

The 70 inches this February fell on 15 days as part of three extended storm systems.

A four-day storm cycle to start the month dropped 24 inches at the Telluride reporting station at the top of Lift 6 (Apex Lift).

Another four-day cycle, starting on Valentine’s Day, produced 24 more inches of new snow.

More new snow was reported on five consecutive days from Feb. 19-23, adding 18 inches to the February powder mix.

February 2015 and February 2016 were marked by long dry stretches. New snow was reported on only six days in February 2015 with a 17-day dry spell.

New snow was reported on only nine days in 2016, but that February closed with a 27-inch storm spread over two days.

“It’s good to have the snow again for a lot of reasons,” said Jeff Proteau, vice president of operations at Telski. “Last year, it was a dry winter and a dry summer.”

The current year snowpack is vital not only for skiing, he said, but for regional water needs, empty reservoirs and the ongoing drought.

He said the February snowfall numbers produced banner conditions with local skiers and riders turning out in big numbers.

“Our local visits are way up … and that’s great,” Proteau said.

He added that, in his opinion, when Telluride hits a 60-inch base, “that’s when this mountain skis the best.”

A steady flow of storms pushed the Telluride base over 60 inches; it stood at more than 80 inches entering the weekend.

With some 250 inches of snow this season, Telluride is nearly at its 280-inch seasonal average.

“The snow comes with challenges, of course,” Proteau said. “We’ve also had a lot of wind … it’s a sensitive snowpack.”

He said the resort recorded 80-90 mph wind gusts on Gold Hill last week.

“There was a good stretch in the middle of February … 10 days. We had very strong winds every single day,” Tukman said. “Wind in the 40s and 50s (mph) with gusts. Just this last week, it’s been windy.”

THE BAD

That pesky wind, along with the snow, have produced treacherous avalanche conditions in the backcountry.

Last week the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) issued extreme avalanche danger warnings for all mountain regions in the state at the same time — a first.

“These are exceptional avalanche conditions,” according to the avalanche warning posted for the North San Juan area. “Backcountry avalanche conditions are extremely dangerous. Avoid travel in or below all avalanche terrain. Avalanches are running to valley floors and some are exceeding historic run-outs.”

The dangerous avalanche conditions are expected to linger into the week, according to the CAIC posting.

Two avalanche fatalities in the last two weeks have rocked the greater Telluride community.

One backcountry skier was killed in an avalanche in the Bear Creek drainage after skinning up from Telluride.

A second backcountry skier died in an avalanche last week in the Trout Lake area on Lizard Head Pass.

A backcountry skier also was killed in an avalanche in Upper Senator Beck Basin northwest of Red Mountain Pass earlier this winter.

Seven avalanche fatalities in Colorado have been reported this season, including a backcountry skier who died Thursday after getting caught and buried in a slide on Jones Pass in Clear Creek County.

For the latest avalanche conditions, visit avalanche.state.co.us.

THE UGLY

The historic avalanche conditions have spilled into historic avalanche control operations all across Colorado, including the North San Juans.

Red Mountain Pass, for example, is closed.

It’s been closed since last week when massive slides dropped tons and tons of snow on Highway 550 between Ouray and Silverton.

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) projects a reopening of Highway 550 sometime this week, depending on the weather and other factors.

Additional resources from CDOT have been directed to the Red Mountain Pass reopening.

Lizard Head Pass also experienced closures last week because of avalanches and avalanche control work.

At times over the past week, the state traction/chain law was in effect for Dallas Divide, as well as Highway 145 up to Telluride.

Highway travel to the Front Range of Colorado also was hit by major closures and delays last week with more issues projected into this week.

Major avalanches closed Interstate 70 and caused a natural gas leak near Copper Mountain on Thursday. Avalanche activity in the Central Mountains has occurred in places where no slide activity has ever been reported.

One avalanche last weekend swept cars into the median barrier on I-70 near Frisco.

Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort shut down all lift operations for a time last week because of the extreme avalanche conditions made worse by wet, heavy snow and high winds.

Weather conditions and corresponding driving conditions are expected to be troublesome into the week.

After a partly sunny Sunday, the National Weather Service is forecasting snow showers in Telluride on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Low temperatures are predicted in the teens and 20s with highs in the 30s.

For the latest road conditions, visit cotrip.org.