A long look into the future ~ OpenSnow

The 51-version average of the European model’s snowfall forecast nicely displays the issue with plenty of snow for the west, but the deepest accumulations could stay closer to the west coast with less snow for us in the Rockies as storms weaken, split, or track just north or south of Colorado when they move inland.

The forecast outlook for the 30 days between December 30 and January 28 continues to show an active/stormy pattern across the west. In fact, three of the extended-range models show nearly the same weather pattern in their 30-day forecasts which is remarkable agreement for a one-month outlook.

If we can stay in this active pattern for the next 30 days, at some point luck will be on our side and we’ll see a few significant storms along with the more consistent weak or moderate storms that we’ve been seeing lately.


The average # of deaths by avalanche per year in Colorado is 6 … this is 4 in just over a week and it’s still December. rōbert

A backcountry skier who was on a solo outing on Berthoud Pass became Colorado’s fourth avalanche death this snow season after he was caught in a slide and found dead on Saturday. 

Grand County Search and Rescue said the man’s body was discovered after he was reported overdue by family members. 

Crews responding to the First Creek area found avalanche debris and then located a pair of goggles. The man’s body was then discovered. 

Grand County Search and Rescue says the man was fully buried and not wearing an avalanche transceiver, a device that sends out an electronic signal so that avalanche victims can be found if and when they are buried under snow. The device is a basic, key avalanche safety tool for backcountry users.

“Please, please, please be careful out there,” Grand County Search and Rescue said in a Facebook post. 

Earlier this month three men were killed in a pair of avalanches over two days. All of them were experienced backcountry skiers.

Avalanche experts have been warning backcountry users that Colorado’s snowpack is very unstable this year and that they should use extra caution.


Avalanche DetailsLocation: Berthoud Pass, First Creek Drainage, Chimney ChuteState: ColoradoDate: 2020/12/26Time: 3:00 PM (Estimated)Summary Description: 1 skier caught, buried, and killedPrimary Activity: Backcountry TourerPrimary Travel Mode: Ski
NumberCaught: 0Fully Buried: 1Injured: 0Killed: 1AvalancheType: SSTrigger: AS – SkierTrigger (subcode): u – An unintentional releaseSize – Relative to Path: R2Size – Destructive Force: D1.5Sliding Surface: G – At Ground/Ice/FirmSiteSlope Aspect: NSite Elevation: 11000 ftSlope Angle: 40 °Slope Characteristic: —

Accident Summary

A backcounty skier was caught buried and killed in an avalanche in the First Creek Drainage, of Berthoud Pass, on December 26, 2020.

Preliminary reports are, the avalanche occurred in an area locally known as Chimney Chute, which is a steep, narrow, north-facing below treeline chute. The victim was located by Grand County Search and Rescue team members with an avalanche probe. 

The Grand County Sheriff and Grand County SAR worked into the night to recover the body. CAIC forecasters will visit the accident site on Sunday. Our condolences to the friends and family of the victim.



The forecast team at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center on Friday capped a week of warnings detailing an increasingly touchy snowpack with three dire social media blasts pointing to spiking avalanche danger across the state. 

The story of a buried skier rescued by his friend on Berthoud Pass included an urgent plea to ski with a partner. A photo of an east-facing slope scoured by an avalanche on Independence Pass warned that even a modest amount of snow was pushing the snowpack “past the tipping point.” A graph of more than 400 natural and human-triggered avalanches from the previous seven days showed small slides on a wide variety of terrain.

Two days after the trumpeted warnings, three very experienced backcountry skierswere dead in two avalanches. One was skiing alone and two were skiing a high-consequence line. Sunday afternoon Greene sent out an uncommon plea, detailing “unusually dangerous” avalanche conditions and pleading with all backcountry travelers to use “additional caution,” even in terrain where they have safely skied in recent years. 

“We are trying to do more and I think we just need to continue to do that,” Greene said of the unprecedented public push to turn as many eyes as possible toward avalanche forecasts and reports. “We don’t know what the absolute right thing to do is, but what we want to do is make sure we are putting good information out there and hopefully people are interacting with it on a couple of occasions in a couple of different ways.”

Heading into this backcountry ski season, state officials have joined avalanche educators and search-and-rescue teams in a vocal campaign urging backcountry skiers to plan and be prepared for travel in avalanche terrain. Backcountry retail shops and avalanche gear manufacturers are reporting record sales. Avalanche education classes and clinics are swelling to record numbers. Resorts restricting access to control the spread of COVID-19 are expected to drive more skiers into avalanche terrain. 

Early projections of a grim backcountry season were supported this weekend. The Crested Butte community lost a local legend when former ski patroller Jeff “Schnoid” Schneider was buried in an avalanche in a zone where he skied often. The next day, two very experienced outdoorsmen from Durango were swept to their deaths in a prominent avalanche path above U.S. 550 on Red Mountain Pass near Silverton. On Friday, a snowmobiler was killed in an avalanche in Wyoming’s Salt River Range near Afton.

Crested Butte’s beloved Jeff Schneider was killed in an avalanche on the “Friendly Finish” slope of the Anthracites near Irwin on Friday. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center) 

In the last week, Greene’s avalanche forecasters at CAIC have fielded reports of 380 avalanches across the state, 108 of them triggered by people. In the three days since Friday, there were 132 avalanches, 49 triggered by people with nine of them caught in moving snow. 

That’s a very busy weekend for avalanche activity. It might not be as dramatic as the week in March 2019 when historic avalanches changed landscapes, but that was the most avalanches CAIC has recorded in a single week since 2011. 

Last week’s spike in human-caused avalanches surpassed previous records set in January 2015, January 2012 and December 2013. The slides weren’t giants, but they were very easy to trigger, said Greene, noting how an inch of new snow combined with high winds in the Seven Sisters avalanche paths led to a natural slide that covered U.S. 6 on Loveland Pass last week. 

“We are seeing avalanches that are not huge, earth-shattering events but they are dangerous and really easy to trigger,” Greene said. 

The concern heading into this winter has swirled around first-timers. But the first three fatalities of the season involved seasoned backcountry skiers in lines where previous avalanches have claimed lives. Dr. Jeff Paffendorf, a 51-year-old Durango physician, and 55-year-old Albert Perry were found late Saturday in avalanche debris at the base of a zone called Battleship near Silverton, a northwest facing slide path that ranks among the largest on Red Mountain Pass. The two men were well-known backcountry skiers. 

‘Just Another Control Day ~ A Story of the Battleship’ by Jonathan Thompson–Silverton Standard–January 14, 2005


The radio chattered with the “heads up” signal, and a few seconds later we heard the boom of the gun, and then the eerie sounding whistle of the bullet piercing the air.  Then the second report of the charge exploding somewhere up in the cloud obscured ridge.  We chatted nonchalantly–all of us had watched expectantly as round after round was lobbed into the paths near town with no result.  Surely the first shot wouldn’t do anything here.

And then we saw it:  the pristine white snow all the way across the starting zone appeared to be cracking like ice.  I lifted my camera to my eye and started pushing the button over and over again as the huge slabs of snow succumbed to gravity and began moving down the mountain, then turning into a great white cloud, and then into a 100-foot high locomotive.  It kept gathering speed, kept growing.  When it was about halfway to the creek, I looked up from the camera’s viewfinder.  The Prescott students are already in retreat, on the highway and moving tentatively toward the elusive safe zone.  Only Roberts and I were still perched on the snow bank and he had a strange, elated, frightened look on his face.

I waited for him to say something, for him to utter some transcendent haiku about the beauty and the power of snow, about staring death in the face and laughing, about pisco, Chilean bars, orange welfare rigs, or that final , poignant look on an angry, disappointed lover’s face as she walks out the door for the last time.

But the haiku never came.  The Zen in Jerry Roberts had vanished.  All that remained was the redneck.

“RUN LIKE BASTARDS”  he yelled, then jumped off the snow bank and sprinted up the road.


Battleship Accident yesterday


Bodies of two backcountry skiers found in avalanche debris near Silverton ~ Colorado Sun

The skiers — 55-year-old Albert Perry and 51-year-old Dr. Jeff Paffendorf — were reported overdue and later found dead in an area known as “the Battleship,” which is southeast of Ophir PassPUBLISHED ON DEC 20, 2020

The Colorado Sun

An aerial shot of an avalanche near Silverton that killed two skiers on Saturday. (Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

The bodies of two backcountry skiers were found in avalanche debris near Silverton on Saturday. 

The skiers were reported overdue and later found dead in an area known as “the Battleship,” which is southeast of Ophir Pass. 

“In the dark from a helicopter, rescuers could see a large avalanche and ski tracks,” the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said in a preliminary report on the slide. “The two skiers were later found buried in the avalanche debris.”

The San Juan County Office of Emergency Management said an operation to recover the bodies was underway Sunday. The victims were identified as 55-year-old Albert Perry and 51-year-old Dr. Jeff Paffendorf. Both were from Durango.

The deaths come after a backcountry skier was killed in an avalanche near Crested Butte on Friday. The Crested Butte News identified the skier as Jeff Schneider, an avid backcountry skier known as “Schnoid.”

Schneider was the first person to die in a Colorado avalanche this snow season. 

Six people were killed in Colorado avalanches during the 2019-2020 snow season.

Officials have been worried about a surge in backcountry skiers this year because of the coronavirus crisis as people look for an alternative to crowded resorts. Money normally dedicated toward attracting tourists to Colorado has been rerouted for avalanche education as a result.

After three deaths in two days, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center on Sunday urged backcountry travelers to be vigilant

“One hundred and eight avalanches were triggered by people in the last week,” Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said in a written statement. “More people die in avalanches in Colorado than any other state, and this year conditions are especially dangerous. This is not the landscape-changing event we saw in March of 2019, but it is the weakest snowpack we’ve seen since 2012. People need to recognize we have unusual conditions and their usual practices may not keep them out of harm’s way. As we gain more snow in the coming weeks, avalanches could become even more dangerous.”

Program expanding to map Colorado mountain snowpack ~ Aspen Journalism

By Heather Sackett December 7, 2020


This map shows the snowpack depth of the Maroon Bells in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions.

Front Range water providers are hoping to expand a program that uses a new technology they say will revolutionize water management in Colorado. But for now, the expensive program isn’t worth it for smaller Western Slope water providers.

The Northern Colorado Water Conservation District is seeking state grant money to expand the Colorado Airborne Snow Observatory program. The ASO program uses remote-sensing lasers on airplanes known as LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, to precisely measure snow depth and density.

The technology creates a much clearer picture of how much water is contained in the snowpack and has been used in pilot studies in the Gunnison River basin and for Denver Water.

But these flights have been scattered and lack consistent funding. A geographically expanded program with consistent funding would revolutionize water management in Colorado, according to the grant application.

“This technology is kind of a no-brainer when it comes to helping us understand what water we have to work with each year,” said Laurna Kaatz, the climate science, policy and adaptation program manager for Denver Water. “We know ASO adds value and is kind of the game-changer in water management.”

Denver Water, which provides water to 1.4 million people along the Front Range, is the ASO expansion project manager, while Northern Water is the fiscal agent. The Colorado, South Platte, Metro, Gunnison and Arkansas basin roundtables have each committed $5,000 toward the project.

The project would not fund the flights themselves but would be used to develop an expanded, collaborative, well-funded plan to identify which basins to fly each year.

Photo courtesy of Quantum Spatial

A flight from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory gathers data about the snowpack above Dillon Reservoir on a June 24, 2019 flight. Information gathered from the flight helped Denver Water manage reservoir operations in spring 2019.

SNOTEL limitations

Important data points that water managers and streamflow forecasters use for measuring snowpack — and the water contained in that snowpack, known as snow-water equivalent (SWE) — are snow-telemetry (SNOTEL) sites, a network of remote sensing stations throughout Colorado’s mountainous watersheds that collect weather and snowpack information. But they provide just a snapshot of conditions at one location.

“A large amount of SWE is in that high-elevation snow band, which doesn’t get captured by the SNOTEL program,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource managers for the city of Aspen.

In the spring of 2019, Denver Water learned just how valuable ASO technology is in predicting runoff. Data from a June ASO flight showed there was about 114,000 acre-feet of water in the snow above Dillon Reservoir, Denver Water’s largest storage pool, even though SNOTEL sites, at about 11,000 feet, registered as melted out already. The water provider increased outflows from Dillon so they could make room for the coming snowmelt and avoid downstream flooding.

“I think this is going to revolutionize water management in the West,” Kaatz said. “If you have the ability to have more information and we know that it’s accurate information, it is gold in the water industry.”

Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center

This map shows the snowpack depth of Castle and Maroon valleys in spring 2019. Colorado water managers are hoping to expand NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory program with state grant money, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions.

Expensive technology

ASO technology was developed by NASA and researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. But the technology is expensive — between $100,000 and $200,000 per flight, according to Kaatz — and still not worth it for smaller Western Slope municipal water providers who don’t have to carefully coordinate the operation of large reservoirs.

The city of Aspen and the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District are part of the collaborative workgroup helping to create the ASO program expansion plan. Other entities include Colorado Springs Utilities, city of Fort Collins, city of Boulder, city of Greeley, Thornton Water, Pueblo Water, Aurora Water, city of Westminster, Ruedi Water Power and Authority, and the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Hunter said more data is better when it comes to managing Aspen’s water supply, which comes from Castle and Maroon creeks. The city is trying to install a SNOTEL site and another stream gauge in its watershed. Hunter said the collaborative workgroup has also been exploring ways to sustainably fund an expanded ASO program.

“Airborne measurements of both snow depth and density to come up with your SWE is a great alternative, but it’s cost prohibitive,” Hunter said. “If they have this great technology but nobody can use because nobody can afford it, that doesn’t help anybody.”

Water managers for Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, which supplies water to the Vail Valley, said that although they are participating in the workgroup meetings and find the science interesting and useful, the expense is not something they can bite off right now. Their reservoirs are small and mostly used for augmentation, not to supply municipal water.

“I think there’s value in the whole system and understanding the water that’s available,” said Len Wright, the senior water resources engineer for Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. “But we don’t have anything that would justify the expense right now.”

Northern Water and Airborne Snow Observatories, Inc. will each contribute $5,000 worth of in-kind services to the project. Also, Denver Water will contribute $10,000 in-kind and the collaborative workgroup will give $24,000 of in-kind services. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is being asked for $20,000 from the statewide Water Supply Reserve Fund account and is scheduled to consider the grant application at its March meeting.