Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rocky Mountain National Park Conditions

January 27, 2009

Hi all,

With a reported 18” of new snow at Bear Lake from this last storm cycle, the Park is sitting pretty for skiing. The snow came in steadily, with anywhere from 4-to-8” a day over this past weekend, starting Thursday night and wrapping up mid-morning yesterday (Monday, 26th). The snow came in very warm and, in fact, it was raining in Estes on Saturday afternoon. This “warm” snow, heavy with a high water content, seems to be bonding with many of the old snow surfaces quite well in some spots. However, in other spots the evidence would indicate otherwise. Throughout this storm cycle, besides Friday, the winds have been mostly absent…but they are back today with a vengeance.

Due to the positive bonding abilities of the new snow, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) has forecasted the avalanche danger for the Front Range today as MODERATE. Perhaps in other areas in the Front Range zone this is the case but things seem to be a little sketchier in the Park right now. The danger rating rose quickly from near-LOW to CONSIDERABLE with this storm cycle and this morning fell back to MODERATE. On Saturday, on an AIARE Level 1 avalanche course, students and I skied the lower Dragontails in pretty poor visibility. we saw a party of four skiers descending the main Dragontail Coulior from the top! Again on Sunday we skied the Otis couliors and Terrain Park which are N-NE-E in aspect and are in the mid-30-degree range. On both days we saw few signs of instability despite numerous test slopes and snow profiles. Indeed, things seemed to bonding well where we had been skiing and a MODERATE rating seemed accurate.

However, sometime on Sunday the “Dead Elk” or left Dragontail Coulior slabbed off where the slope begins to bottleneck around 10,700’ or so. I didn’t realize this until Monday morning as I skinned across Emerald Lake but the crown line was definitely still visible as was the debris. The winds were working their hardest to erase the evidence, however, and by now the slope would look as if nothing had ever happened. The skiing was great, by the way.

Again today we were skiing in the Park but due to the high winds and frigid temps, opted to keep it at treeline and below. The strong winds have already made the treeline skiing enjoyable this season and, yup, they’re back and blowing furiously. The snow is being rapidly transported from all windward slopes onto lee slopes, generally easterly aspects. Seriously, wind slabs are forming very quickly and soon will be plenty thick enough to be a real concern. I spoke to a friend who had just snowshoed down from Lake Haiyaha 10-15 minutes before we met. As we neared the top of the trail, fresh, sensitive slabs had formed over his tracks and it looked like he passed sometime yesterday rather than 30 minutes prior. As we nudged into the Terrain Park, we triggered numerous slabs, some 40’ wide and 8” deep. Being relatively small and the being mindful of our terrain choices, we weren’t terribly concerned about these slabs. We definitely avoided some slopes, however, and I would highly caution backcountry travelers to be wary of treeline and above treeline terrain over the next week. Especially be cautious of slopes that are very steep and wind-loaded. Another storm cycle is forecasted to enter our area on Wednesday, bringing more snow and more winds. Woohoo, winter is here!

I have only a couple updates on ice conditions. One party reported on the “West Gully” up at the Black Lake area, while heading up to McHenry’s to attempt that peak. With this strong wind event blowing so much snow in the Park right now, the upper ice slabs at Black Lake are probably pretty avalanche prone now. Another guide was up at the Jewel Lake ice this past week and reported that there was less ice than usual but that it’s “in.” On our ski tour towards Otis the other day, I saw the Loch Vale ice area from across the valley. Can ice shrink? Just kidding…but I couldn’t see any improvement on conditions there anyhow. Perhaps with the new snow to feed them, our south-facing ice may form up. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

If you have any condition-related observations you’d like to share with me, send an e-mail to acouncell@totalclimbing.com. Thanks!

Andrew Councell is a CMS Guide and year-round (brrr, again) Estes Park resident

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