Winter Storm Blasts, Avalanche Conditions Shift
A powerful winter storm will be blasting Leadville Today, leaving behind possibly up to a foot of new snow in some areas creating a Friday evening drive home for local commuters that could be worse than Wednesday’s harrowing trek home through the high country.
“(Highway) 91 from Copper Mountain into town had about this much slush on it,” shared one Leadville commuter registering a good six inches with his fingers. “Some of the worst I’ve ever seen,” he added referring to Wednesday evenings conditions along Highway 91, north of town.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), yesterday, January 18 saw a brief lull between the third and fourth storms of 2019 for the Central Mountains. On Wednesday, Jan. 17 storm totals were generally in the eight to ten-inch range with around an inch and a half of snow water equivalent.
Today, weather forecasters are predicting patchy blowing snow after 10 a.m. with a high near 21 degrees. Blustery conditions will be today’s weather challenge with a northwest wind to 10 to 20 mph, with some gusts as high as 30 mph. Chance of precipitation is 80%. While predicted snow accumulations vary, most meteorologists are calling for today’s daytime accumulations to range between 6 – 12 inches, with many in Lake County having already reported 1-3 inch snow totals since the early morning hours. Tonight there is a 50 percent chance of snow, mainly before 11 p.m. with mostly cloudy skies and a low of around 3 degrees and wind chill values between -10 and zero.
Backcountry users, including snowmobilers, should stay situational aware of fast-changing conditions at high elevations. All of the recent snow came in dense and with a lot of wind, according to CAIC reports. Near and above treeline the wind played such a strong role that the greatest concerns today are in drifted areas. The winds generally blew from the west, with a northwest push towards the end of the storm. On the eastern half of the compass, expect fresh deep drifts several feet thick below prominent ridges and freshly corniced features. But with so much snow to move around, you may find small easy to trigger drifts on any aspect, particularly along cross-loaded gullies.
For today, January 18, CAIC forecasters expect dangerous conditions will become worse tonight with an even stronger storm lined up to impact the Central Mountains overnight. This next wave brings even more snow than Wednesday’s pulse, so the expected avalanche size will grow as the snow piles up on the weak early season base. With an Avalanche Watch in place, expect an Avalanche Warning to be issued in advance of most dangerous avalanche conditions so far this winter on Friday.
In other news from CAIC, field reporters have already logged in a D2 avalanche in Lake County. Last Saturday, Jan 12 it was reported that a D2 avalanche took place on nearby Mt Zion. Then the next day, a small slab avalanche on a west aspect near Fremont Pass was registered in the books. While these incidents are considered small snowslides relative to their paths, they would be considered destructive if they hit something, or threatened roadways below. Fortunately, most debris stays up in the “gulch” and rarely threatens humans or structures.
Avalanche officials warn that backcountry users can easily trigger large avalanches today on terrain features where Wednesday’s snow drifted into dense slabs. The most dangerous slopes will face north through east to south, near and above treeline. Steady strong westerly winds blew throughout yesterday’s storm and overnight. Newly formed slabs will feel dense, possibly sounding hollow if you travel on them. Expect these will have grown to one to three feet thick in the most heavily drifted features below ridgelines, under cornices and in alpine gullies or shallow depressions.
While the fresh snow is a beacon to adventure for high-altitude skiers, and snowmobilers, users are encouraged to choose slopes carefully today to travel safely. Avoid traveling on or beneath steep freshly drifted features. Consider that if you feel the snow surface becoming stiffer as you move onto a slope, or you see cracking in the snow surface, it’s time to back off.
It’s wintertime at 10,152 in Leadville Today which is always a double-edged sword with high-country adventure on one side and treacherous highway travel and increasingly dangerous avalanche conditions on the other. For the most up-to-the-minute road conditions, readers can connect with the Colorado Department of Transportation at cotrip.org. Backcountry users, be sure to check out the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website for current backcountry conditions.