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The San Juan’s Unstable Snowpack: What It Means for Backcountry Travelers
The San Juan’s Unstable Snowpack: What It Means for Backcountry Travelers

The San Juan’s Unstable Snowpack: What It Means for Backcountry Travelers

By: Nate DeCremer

Wednesday, February 27, 2019 | Number of views (4757)

With winter in full effect across Southwest Colorado, the San Juan mountain range has become a playground for backcountry snow sports, but also one of the most avalanche -prone mountain ranges in the country.

With the San Juan Mountains as our backyard here in Durango, students are privileged to have easy access to some of the best backcountry terrain in Colorado. While the San Juans have been proven to be a mecca for the backcountry ski and snowboard community, it has also become famous for its notoriously dangerous snowpack.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 63 people are buried and 6 fatalities each year on average in Colorado. The CAIC states that this year alone, there have already been 54 recorded burials and two fatalities. One of said fatalities happened here in San Juans off Red Mountain Pass.

With the most recent snowfall, there have been numerous special avalanche warnings issued by the Colorado Department of Transportation and the CAIC for the San Juan mountain range and other zones throughout Colorado.

“This is a very standard San Juan year,” says Josh Kling, Coordinator of Outdoor Pursuits Permitting and Programming. “If you go from a year that is super stable, then go to a year that has no snow, and then go to a normal year, everyone thinks that the normal year is extremely sketchy.”

The past two years have seen extremely stable snowpacks for the San Juans, and this year’s relatively standard snowpack shows that anyone who is going to travel in the backcountry needs to remember how dangerous these mountains can get, Kling said.

The main reason why the San Juan snowpack is so avalanche-prone is because the mountains are very high with very cold temperatures. According to data collected by CAIC, the San Juan mountain range has a smaller snowpack relative to other places in the U.S, like the Pacific Northwest that can have giant amounts of snow.

“We get snow in October and November, and it’s very shallow, about a foot and a half, and very cold,” says Kling. “We get these buried facets and then we get dumps on top of it. Once the foundation is a crummy foundation, everything else on top of it is there until spring.”

These facets, or weak layers in the snowpack are what causes avalanches to occur. The snow will build up on top, and when the weak layer breaks, all the snow above it will slide, carrying anything in its path along with it.

There are steps that students wanting to adventure into the backcountry can take to avoid these dangers.

“One is to get educated and get the knowledge,” says Brett Davis, assistant director of outdoor pursuits. “If you’re gonna go out there, at a minimum you should start with some sort of avalanche education.”

Davis recommends that students become familiar with safety equipment, such as beacons, shovels, and probes, and to get knowledge on how to perform rescues and burials. He also recommends choosing competentent hiking partners.

Students should also never be under the influence of substances, and to always have a plan prior to going out there.

There is a non-profit organization called Friends of the San Juans that puts on avalanche awareness and Know Before You Go clinics, Outdoor Pursuits, Kling Mountain Guides, and San Juan Mountain Guides all teach courses in avalanche education.

“There’s been an explosion of opportunities for people to get educated in our area,” says Davis.

Outdoor Pursuits also offers all the necessary safety equipment needed for a trip into the backcountry available to students. They have avalanche beacons, shovels, probes, skis and splitboards, and are happy to share any knowledge they have to keep students informed, Davis said.   

Some of the splitboards available to students at OP. Splitboards are snowboards that split into skis allowing snowboarders access to backcountry terrain  Photo by: Nate DeCremer


The CAIC is also another resource to find avalanche information. The CAIC posts avalanche forecasts every day for the San Juan mountain range that gives backcountry travelers all the information they need to stay safe.

In an avalanche forecast you are able to see the level of avalanche danger in the area you’ll be traveling in, the type of avalanches you would be seeing and why, and the weather that you would encounter in that area. Most forecasts will also go into an in depth discussion on how the recent weather conditions has effect the snowpack over the last few days as well.

Forecasters will look at different weather stations’ forecasts to see what the weather conditions were overnight and will then issue the forecast based off of the meteorological data they found, said Tico Gangulee, a former avalanche forecaster, and active IFMGA Mountain Guide and instructor for Kling Mountain Guides. Forecasters also will go out into the field and collect data directly from the snow and incorporate those finding into the next forecast, Gangulee said.

With all the different resources available in Durango, students can receive the proper training, knowledge and equipment that is essential to keeping them safe in the backcountry.

“We want them to get out there and go, but we want them to be safe doing it and go out there with some sort of knowledge” Davis said.


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