Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Danger in the backcountry

We write this letter with great sadness, but feel a great need to. Our community has experienced another backcountry avalanche fatality. It is another accident that will affect many people for the rest of their lives. We offer our deepest, heartfelt sympathy to family and friends.

We'd like to emphasize to all backcountry travelers the need to be very cautious in any steep, rocky terrain for the remainder of the season, particularly at upper elevations. Our long midwinter dry spell created very weak snow near the base of the snowpack and it remains possible to trigger a large, destructive avalanche in areas where the weak snow persists. This problem is with us until July.

Extremely variable snow depths cover the weak layer. Shallow areas of snow cover increase the risk of the weight of a person or machine collapsing the weak underlying snow and triggering a slide, yet these slides can break out through strong, thick snow. Recent snowfall and warming temperatures also increase the risk of triggering a slide on this layer. Keep in mind tracks on a slope do not mean it is safe; 50 tracks on a slope still do not mean it is safe.

In addition, upper elevations will likely experience a large, full-depth avalanche cycle when we have overnight temperatures remaining above freezing or a big rain event.

Some years, steep terrain just isn't safe. There is no getting around it. The extent and location of the weak snow is uncertain. The trigger points are uncertain, yet consequences are enormous. People will be able to get on steep slopes and not trigger slides in places, but other locations may prove deadly. It has the makings of a game of roulette. This is not a normal spring, or a normal spring snowpack when we can count on better stability. Sometimes it is just not worth it. Please be careful.

Bozo Cardozo, Janet Kellam


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