Avalanche risk remains high in deadly season

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CLEAR CREEK COUNTY, Colo. -- The wind, snow and rapidly changing weather conditions are combining to increase the avalanche danger in Colorado's high country, according to avalanche forecasters.

With such a deadly season so far, how do these experts predict just how dangerous it is?

It has been a deadly winter across the mountain west, with 17 people killed in avalanches nationwide.

"It's creating a very unstable snowpack,” said John Snook, an avalanche forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

There have been six fatalities in Colorado and the avalanche risk is the highest it has been in three decades.

“It's a scary year to be in the back country,” said Matthew Wilber, a Colorado Ski Patrol Accident Investigator. “The danger is elevated right now.”

In fact, there have been more than 30 avalanches in Colorado in less than a week, including the one that closed Loveland Pass.

Snowfall in October and November, followed by a dry December, left an unstable snow base.

"Because of that base layer being weak the avalanches are much deeper, so the danger becomes increased,” said Wilber.

That's why avalanche forecaster John Snook goes deep into the Colorado backcountry to literally measure and predict the danger.

“There's kind of a false sense of security that you can stay on top,” Snook said. “But if you find one of those weak spots then the whole thing can go.”

He peels open snow banks looking for clues.

"We can test some things on this slope that are representative of much larger slopes up higher," Snook said.

He uses a variety of simple tools to map out specific traits in each of the distinctive layers of snow.

"We're testing to see if any of these layers are gonna shear off in this direction," he said, pointing down slope.

"This is that really weak layer," he said, gripping onto a crumbling snowball. “You can't put it together in a snowball. It's not very cohesive."

From that lowest crumbling layer, water seeps upward from the ground, freezing as it leaches toward the colder surface.

"And that's what makes Colorado one of the most dangerous snow packs in the world," Snook said. "As we put more weight on that very weak layer it can fail by collapsing."

Snook uses this information to map these areas and to make daily predictions for public safety.

"When you're in the backcountry you need to take your own responsibility," Snook pointed out.

And with normal snow continuing to fall on that bottom weaker base, it's a formula for disaster.

“Even though it's low probability, if I get caught in one there's a pretty good chance I'm gonna die,” Snook said.

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