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Winter is Here: Snowpack and Conditions Update by Justin Ibarra

Some early season goods. PC: Gary Fondl

Winter is here as a new season begins and our Colorado snowpack is back in full force. A few early season storms came through the state over the past couple of months with long dry periods in between. The dry and sunny periods helped to melt the snow on most Southerly aspects but on Northerly and shaded aspects the snow was lent to rot and created a mixed bag of basal facets, crust/facet combos, and wind slabs.

Around this time of year with this early season setup, it’s important to keep an eye out to see what areas where harboring that early season snowpack. We can then mentally picture where our problem layers will be once the first big snowfall of the season arrives and blankets our mountain environments to entirety.

November 17th came and just that kind of storm arrives dropping around 30cm across the Vail/Summit County Zone and Continental Divide with heavy winds. Time to head out into the backcountry to confirm and assess how this early snowpack is shaping up.

Evidence of some big windloading.

I linked up with Gary Fondl and we headed up to a usual early season zone, Jones Pass. A new load and heavy winds. With this we expected to see some wind slabs and we discussed being cautious on those slopes that where holding that early season snow, suspecting basal facets and a weak cohesion of the new/old snow interface.

A busy Saturday morning in the parking lot as we started to skin up the road with about 15cm of new and non wind-affected snow. We discussed our intended plan for the day of heading up to the pass proper to get a better gauge on the alpine snowpack and hopefully get in some good turns.

Moderate to Intense windloading on ridgetops and cross loaded features where a general theme for the day

Skinning up the road below TL we found some slight wind affected snow but we could see it was a much different story in the alpine with moderate to intense loading on leeward and cross-loaded slopes. We continued up and kept poking around as we made our way to the pass proper. Throughout the day we traveled NE-SE aspects and found a good wind skin of variable density and thickness above TL on all of those aspects. Some moderate cracking on NE windslabs and we noticed a small cornice break off a SE aspect on the ridgeline at around 12500ft.

Small cornice break off the ridge.

Knowing that those Northerly aspects would be our suspect for the day we where cautious to skin around certain areas and kept our slope angles appropriate for the snowpack and the days travel. Personally, what I was curious to see was if we would see those instabilities on E and SE aspects. The answer in a nutshell, YES.

Gotta get your nose in the snow!
We dug a hasty pit on a NE aspect to get an in idea of those early season layers and then continued on a little higher to an East aspect that we where going to ski to dig a little more. We found a reactive crust/facet combo about 15cm from the ground, confirming that there lies a persistent weak layer. The funny thing was that we where adjacent to about 12 ski tracks. Luckily the slope was 28-30 degrees but I couldn’t help but ask myself if people knew what was beneath their skis.

Terrain management is crucial. We continued our day managing our slope angles and skiing a couple of good laps. The skiing was great but there was that cold wind-skin we had to deal with.  On our last run out we did get a good shooting crack on a SE aspect on the old/new interface. Luckily, we weren’t on a steeper slope otherwise it definitely would have ripped. Terrain management is crucial.

All in all it was a great day to get out and assess the snowpack and get in some good early season turns. We pretty much saw what we expected with instabilities near the base of the pack on NE aspects and then as well within the old/new snow interface from the 11/17 storm.

Now, I do feel to mention what I didn’t expect to see and that was other groups decision making. Yes, it was the weekend in a common early season zone and so I knew there was going to be a decent amount of people out there, but some of the route selection choices I saw where quite questionable and disheartening.

Thats a big load, is it a big deal?

Nearing the pass you must cross underneath some big loads above. Just as we where nearing this zone a group of 3 seemed to try to boogie on past us, which is fine, but then we watch them pass underneath these slopes in a single file line seeming to disregard the possible looming danger from above. Throughout the next few hours I probably saw a handful of parties doing the same thing with what seemed the same disregard. The Kelso Mountain accident loomed in my mind.

Then on our exit run I look back and notice a solo skier with his dogs put in the above skin-track. Yikes, I thought to myself. And he also wasn’t the only one skinning up steeper northerly facing slopes.

I know this early season time of year has people “jonesing” but we must be aware out there. Coming home I hear and read from other folks touring in the same as well other zones and encountering the same if not worse signs of instability. Terrain management, terrain management, terrain management.

There is a whole season ahead of us. Be careful out there my friends.

By Justin Ibarra

Justin is a splitboarding guide, avalanche educator, and snow safety director at Colorado Adventure Guides and the founder of Colorado Snowboard Guides.  He lives in Summit County, Colorado and likes to shred pow.

Patiently Waiting: Summer Hiking on Winter’s Snowpack

The summer solstice is a week away, and a swath of the Southwest is under an excessive heat warning, but here in Summit County we still patiently await summer. Temps have barely topped 70 degrees, and ski lifts will spin until at least June 23 over our snowpack that currently sits at 332% of average. Locals feel antsy to hike or mountain bike on a trail other than one of the half-dozen that are currently dry, but overall we appreciate the reduced wildfire danger and the unique opportunity to ski, hike, run, bike, paddle, and sun bathe in the same day. If you’re planning a hike on your summer vacation to Summit County, however, you’ll be in for a surprise if you’re expecting to hike up a mountain on dirt anytime soon. Hiking in our unique “summer” conditions can be a blast, so long as you know what to expect.



winter 2018-19’s impressive dark blue line shows the volume of snow still hanging around here in the Colorado River watershed (graph: Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture)


To love your June adventures in Summit County this year, it’s important to tune your mindset: trail conditions are different now than in many other Junes, but not necessarily worse.  One year ago, our emergency responders were fighting the Buffalo Mountain fire, a blaze that came within feet of homes in a local neighborhood. Though it will take a while yet for many of our trails to be snow free, consider what a special place to play this county is. From our window here in the Colorado Adventure Guides office, we look out at the snow-covered Tenmile Range, but we can still hit dirt trails for an after-work run or ride. While the snow inconveniences some of the things we love to do in a Summit County summer, it’s a gift, too. Those Labor Day ski turns will be a lot of fun.

But if you’re eager to hike at high elevation, don’t worry–there are plenty of places to explore right now. Just bear in mind that hiking in current conditions requires an adaptable attitude and specific practices to protect our beautiful mountains. Following Leave No Trace principles means we travel and camp on durable surfaces to minimize our impact on fragile terrain, and snow is a very durable surface! Unless we leave trash behind, evidence of our passing disappears once the snow melts. Traveling on snow without the ideal equipment or in certain conditions, however, can be slow going and demoralizing. Warm, wet spring snow is heavy, and each step requires far more effort than on clear, dry trail. Expect to work hard on a June hike! To make the going easier, hike in the morning before the sun warms the snow. Firm, pre-dawn snow could call for added traction from microspikes or similar equipment. Consider using snowshoes to increase your ability to stay on top of the snow. Hike on well-traveled trails; the more traffic a trail receives, the more packed out the snow generally will be. Use trekking poles to help maintain balance across uneven snow surfaces. And remember that even though hiking to the top of a peak is currently doable, sometimes the snow is too deep, wet, and heavy for a hike to be fun. In such conditions, there’s not a pair of skis or snowshoes that could allow you to proceed upward enjoyably. In such situations, prioritize the fun factor and retreat to lower elevations…maybe after a mid-summer snowball fight.


Quandary Peak Trail, June 14, 2019


Often trickier than snow travel are the transition zones between snowfields and dry trail. In these zones, runoff saturates the ground. A trail that is clear and dry in September can be a muddy mess or chilly flowing stream under current conditions. Though it’s tempting to detour around muddy or wet sections, please stay on the trail! Squish your way through the mud, and splash through the streams. Hiking this time of year requires a willingness to get your feet wet and shoes muddy. The zones where snow will soon melt are alpine tundra; these delicate places are the home of plants that fight to survive in the harsh conditions near and above treeline. Detouring around a muddy spot in the trail causes damage to the tundra that takes years to heal. Such tundra is perhaps the least durable of all surfaces to travel on. If a trail is so muddy that you cannot hike on it without leaving deep footprints for a significant distance, consider again retreating to lower elevations. On all trails, there is a window of time when the trail is neither completely snow-covered nor completely dry. During this period of time, it’s often impossible to travel a trail without damaging it. This period is the one time when conditions call for avoiding a trail altogether. These are the times of year when I’ve been forced to discover new trails that I now frequent.

When planning a Summit County outing, there are several great resources to consult for up-to-date trail conditions. The Summit County Trail Conditions public Facebook group offers crowd-sourced information on current conditions. The guides here at Colorado Adventure Guides love to explore local trails; give us a call with questions about trail conditions, as there’s a good chance we’ve been on the trail you’re curious about recently.


Yes, it’s summer here in the Northern Hemisphere, but don’t pack away your skis, snowshoes, glacier goggles or microspikes yet. The long days and relatively stable weather of June make for wonderful adventure days, but remember that this June, a mindset willing to adjust expectations is your friend. Here at Colorado Adventure Guides, we’re already hiking up 14ers with our inspiring guests as we bear in mind how to travel well in the mountains while we await summer conditions. Plan wisely, hold your mountain objectives loosely, and be willing to change plans as the snowpack requires. Embrace muddy shoes and the chance to build a snowman all summer long here on the continental divide.

Tracking Early Season Layers

With snow beginning to cover the ground, it’s time to start your storm board for the 2020/21 season so you can track when layers become buried in the snowpack.  With your stormboard you’ll be able to track  changes in potential weak layers that will be an important part of your decision-making process.

Field Observations

How tuned are your observation skills? Early season is a great time to practice your field/visual observations. Its a reason to get out and tour around, take notes and chat about conditions with your touring buddies. You can add these observations into your Storm Tracking Board. Remember to always be observing.
In this video we talk about:  WEATHER. SNOWPACK, TERRAIN
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