Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rocky Mountain National Park Conditions

February 17th 2009

Hi all,

The forecasted weather for the next couple of days looks pretty unsettled and there’s no telling how much snow the Park will receive. Since the current and approaching systems are so unconsolidated we could get anywhere from a mere few inches to more than a foot. So that’s the potential good news. However, the bad news is the wind that is forecasted to accompany this series of systems. We’re talking gusts into the mid-50mph! Winds that strong, and possibly stronger knowing the Park, will definitely be breaking down the fresh, light, new snow as it is transported into deposition zones and packing the new snow into dense slabs. Reports indicate that these slabs are not bonding very well and are fairly reactive. To read the latest regional avalanche events, visit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). Even after these storms have subsided and the clearing weekend weather approaches, the danger will still be present on some slopes. It’s all-too-easy to fall into the “blue-bird” weather trap and assume that things have stabilized. The nature of our continental snowpack is that the avalanche danger takes a long time to fall, so stay sharp out there.

I was co-instructing a holiday-weekend AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Course near Monarch Pass this weekend. On the southern end of the Sawatch Range, the area had received a lot of new snow prior to the weekend. Yesterday, Monday, we dug snow-profiles above the Lost Wonder Hut on an ENE aspect in treeline terrain. On a mid-30-degree slope we isolated snow columns for compression tests but found no scoreable results despite the new snow and winds. All weekend we watched backcountry riders and skiers on steep slopes but we never really saw much instability despite a CONSIDERABLE avalanche danger rating. However, this is when I feel we have to be most careful. We have no idea how close those people came to triggering an avalanche that could have killed them and, likely, those people don’t know either. Maybe it was really close, maybe not. Either way, be careful about choosing to travel in terrain simply because there are already tracks there.

Before the weekend, I had a couple of absolutely glorious days of skiing in the Park due to a rare phenomenon: new snow AND little-to-no wind. Thursday I was skiing with a couple clients above Emerald Lake in dreamy, breathless conditions. It was so good that I went back up there on my own on Friday as well. Though the winds were just beginning to pick up, I was able to ski over 5000’ vertical before 11am, including two laps down the Dead Elk Couloir, or left-most Dragontail (aka, West Couloir). Constantly measuring slope incline in the Dead Elk as I went up, I had one reading of 43-degrees! I skinned up the Dead Elk until I was 30 vertical feet from the top of the snow and tried counting my turns in the perfect snow on the way down. I lost count after 30. I went up again but not quite as high the second time, poor legs. Then I crossed over the Dragontail Couloir to ski more southerly aspects to see how the snow was. Another 800’ descent in awesome snow before heading to the Terrain Park and skiing the 50-degree entrance to that run. I scurried home and declared that it was very possibly the best morning of skiing I’ve ever had in the Park. Conditions quickly changed overnight, however, and the next day friends went into the same area only to find wind-blown slabs and a once-again-CONSIDERABLE avalanche danger. You can get away with something one day but 24 hours later it could be totally different. The avalanche danger in the Park will likely remain CONSIDERABLE through the week and likely into the weekend as well, so keep checking the CAIC forecasts and be extra safe this week.


Not much has changed in terms of ice conditions in the Park. Hidden Falls, Black Lake, and Jewel Lake areas will likely hold ice for another couple of months. Routes like “Jaws” and “the Squid” will not. Honestly, I’ve been skiing so much lately that I haven’t had many days out on the ice in the last few weeks so I’d be grateful for any updates.

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 currently-psyched, year-round Estes Park resident.

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