An avalanche is photographed just south of Cottonwood Pass on the Continental Divide last Friday. Current danger in the Sawatch Range was classified as moderate as of Jan. 11, but a weak layer is present around the state.

A dry spell in December left behind a weak layer of snow that has resulted in dangerous avalanche conditions across Colorado.

“There’s just exceptionally weak snow around the whole state,” said  Ben Pritchett, forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). “It’s not historically unusual, but it’s different than what we’ve had the last few years.”

According to Pritchett, the persistent slab avalanche problem is a result of snow that has fallen since Dec. 11, forming slabs on top of a snow layer that grew weak during a dry spell.

“The prolonged dry spell allowed the weak layer to form, and it was long enough to affect the whole state,” Pritchett said. “The slabs are comprised of the snow [that has fallen] since Dec. 11.”

Six skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers had been caught in avalanches across the state as of Jan. 11, resulting in four deaths.  

Last year, 26 backcountry users were caught in avalanches, resulting in six fatalities. The five years prior saw eight, three, one, five and three avalanche fatalities in the state, respectively.

The avalanche danger extends to other states as well. On Friday, a snowboarder in Utah was killed in an avalanche in Dutch Draw, north of Park City.

Earlier this winter, Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center started a forecast pledge to encourage backcountry users to check the CAIC’s avalanche forecast before venturing out into the backcountry.

People who sign the pledge before Jan. 31 at https://support.friendsofcaic.org/pages/forecast-pledge have a chance to win a pair of Kastle FX 106 skis and other prizes.

Pritchett said the daily forecasts for the 10 zones across the state provide a danger rating, advice where avalanches are most likely to occur in the terrain, how big avalanches have the potential to be and travel advice.

As of Jan. 11, avalanche danger in the Sawatch zone is moderate, with the primary danger of slabs on north to east to southeast aspects.

According to CAIC’s Monday Sawatch report, “You can trigger large avalanches on steep slopes that face north, east and southeast where a cohesive slab of settled or wind-drifted sits above weak snow near the ground. Assume this combination exists on any wind-prone slope that looks smooth and rounded. Look for and avoid cross-loaded terrain features.

“Avalanches will be smaller below treeline but even small avalanches can pick up speed in steep terrain and crash you into trees and rocks that are not buried. Avoid terrain traps that will magnify the consequences of any avalanche such as creek beds, gullies or cliffs. Cracking and collapsing are obvious signs of unstable snow. You can [help avoid] avalanches by traveling on slopes less than 30-degrees that are not below steeper slopes.”

Daily avalanche forecasts and more information can be found at https://www.avalanche.state.co.us/.

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