Snow is a lot like people. It easily adapts to gradual changes — but too much change too fast, and you’ve got problems.
That’s according to Snow Safety Director Frank Coffey of Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR). And with 73 inches of wet, heavy snow having fallen this month at CBMR, Ski Patrol is working hard to respond to the changes.
“It’s been a historical season for us,” said ski patroller Eric “H” Baumm, who has been employed on the mountain for more than 30 years. “When I first started here, I had never seen the rain events, the warming events or the amount of moisture that we’re seeing.”
Two weeks ago, after an epic storm cycle surged through the southwest, Crested Butte and the surrounding regions reported “extreme” danger — the highest in a five-tier rating system.
But the backcountry is a bit different from CBMR — where ski patrollers maintain 1,420 acres and more than 113 trails for the public. Part of those duties involve avalanche mitigation, primarily with the use of explosives. It’s no surprise that Ski Patrol reports an increase in use of the devices this winter over last.
While the wetter snow certainly has its challenges, patrollers additionally rely on experiences of past winters to maintain the upper hand.
“The depth of experience we have up here has been really useful to use the collective knowledge of the group,” said patroller Jason Holton.
This will be the seventh year Holton has been employed with Ski Patrol at CBMR, and one he’ll always remember.
“It’s above average for sure,” said Holton. “It’s one of the most historic Marches we’ve ever seen with the highest water content.”
But what does a high water content mean for snowpack?
Longtime CBMR patroller Chris Myall said the combination of different types of snow, in part, has led to such unprecedented conditions. The mix of maritime snow — or snowfall characterized by high water content and relatively mild temperatures — combined with what is typically a colder, continental snowpack in Crested Butte has led to greater instability in snowpack, particularly in the extreme terrain.
Coffey noted the rapid change in snowpack seen over the past couple of weeks.
Colorado isn't known for its wet and heavy snow, and the storms late in the season this year put greater stress on the snow that fell in the months of October and November. If, for example, a heavy storm puts pressure on the weaker layers, the snow is more susceptible to sliding — otherwise known as an avalanche.
In instances of rainfall, layers of snow can become increasingly vulnerable to slides due to the additional weight of the water.
“This past storm we had some really wet, dense snow and so the avalanche cycle was quite phenomenal,” added Myall.
Last winter was no doubt drier than the current season, but the snowpack this year isn’t far off from the relatively big winter of 2016-17. As of March 29, 2017 CBMR’s snowpack sat at 308 inches. Comparatively, snowpack currently is measuring at about 278 inches, indicated Coffey.
Despite avalanche mitigation efforts with which Ski Patrol has been involved this winter, there is an upside.
“It’s also been some of the greatest skiing of our careers,” said Baumm.
CBMR Vice President and General Manager Tim Baker extended his gratitude for the work that has been done by patrollers in this unprecedented season.
“Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s ski patrollers and the entire mountain operations team take an amazing amount of professional pride in what they do day-in and day-out, and when you look at the amount of variables they collectively manage in the course of a day, it is astounding,” said Baker. “The weather and snow are just two pieces to a much larger and more intricate puzzle of ski area operations, and we owe a great deal of gratitude to our entire team for making skiing as safe as possible and providing a memorable experience for our guests.”
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)