Why early season Colorado snow may spell danger for backcountry skiers

Here on Gadling we recently reported that Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin Ski Area officially opened for business on October 13, thereby kicking off the start of the new winter season. As of opening day the resort was reporting 18 inches of powder on the ground, and with yesterday’s massive dump of over a foot of new snow the slopes are surely covered in a lot of the white stuff all over again.

While this undoubtedly puts a smile on the face of skiers and boarders who have been frothing all summer to get back on the slopes, some experts claim that large, early-season dumps such as those experienced thus far can ultimately create unstable conditions that contribute to fatal avalanches.

According to a new post by Unofficial Networks, early season snowfall mixed with cold temperatures can create what are known as “depth hoar crystals” that form an unstable layer of ice beneath the snowpack and aid in triggering avalanches later on in the winter.

Essentially ball-bearings that rest beneath the snow, the longer a thin, early season snowpack sits on the slopes, the greater potential it has to eventually form into the hated depth hoar crystals. While coastal resorts along the Sierra Nevada remain relatively warm after an early season dump, inland locations such as Colorado can see cold temperatures linger long after an early season snow, thereby lengthening the time that early season snow stays on the ground.

This is why, according to Unofficial Networks, Colorado is the leading state for avalanche deaths by nearly double the second leading state (Alaska) over the last 50 years. Should warm temperatures help to melt some of the October snow, however, it helps to create a much more stable base.

It’s important to note, of course, that the large majority of Colorado avalanche deaths occur in backcountry terrain that isn’t professionally groomed by qualified resort staff. Given that these in-bounds runs are monitored by the resorts, the chances of depth hoar crystals affecting your run down the bunny slope are far less than if you’re venturing out of bounds.

So while I’m as stoked as the next guy to get back out onto some powder this winter, it’s worth keeping an eye on how all of this early season Colorado snow is going to effect what experts are predicting could be another winter of epic proportions.