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San Juan Mountains a laboratory for the study of avalanches

San Juan Mountains Association works in cooperation with federal public lands partners to ensure visitors to the mountains enjoy the region’s grand views, beautiful hiking trails, world-class off-roading, designated wilderness areas and incredible winter recreation.

Alex Miller

Along with these claims to fame, the San Juan Mountains are known for the significant number of avalanches they produce in the winter. Avalanches are cascading slabs of snow, ice and debris that occur on slopes steeper than 30 degrees. They require snow, which we often have here, and mountainous terrain, which we always have.

Though only a winter hazard, avalanches are responsible for killing numerous backcountry travelers each year. Luckily, some excellent resources can help visitors to Southwest Colorado stay safe. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the San Juan Mountains Association’s public lands stewardship programming both strive to inform winter recreationists about how to stay safe and recreate responsibly.

Before the Rocky Mountains were so densely settled, mining town residents observed avalanches and developed local knowledge to avoid perishing in them. Greenhorns were filled in about how to survive their commutes to the mine, and when disaster struck, whole communities participated in rescue efforts.

With the advent of winter recreation after World War II, local avalanche knowledge rapidly developed into a field of research with help from the U.S. Forest Service and ski areas they managed. As the field grew, so did the research locations, and what better place to study avalanches than the San Juan Mountains.

For winter recreationists, checking the Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecast is the first step for a fun and safe day in the mountains. (Courtesy of David Taft/San Juan Mountains Association)

Several prominent avalanche researchers worked in the San Juans from the 1970s onward through the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research’s (INSTAAR) San Juan Avalanche Project. The project’s goal was to study what caused so many avalanches here and how to mitigate the hazard they created along U.S. Highway 550.

Researchers brought their avalanche expertise to Silverton, and in the tradition of their mining predecessors, developed a strong, localized understanding of avalanches. This time, their local knowledge contributed to a broader community of avalanche researchers across the world and was informed by decades of scientific discussion. Between local observations and universal knowledge, INSTAAR researchers could more accurately predict when to close Highway 550 and similar mountain roads. Thus, the San Juans became not only a hub for avalanches, but a hub for their study.

After an avalanche buried and killed Highway 550 snowplow driver Eddie Imel in 1992, the Colorado Department of Transportation began sponsoring the CAIC, an organization responsible for studying and forecasting avalanche conditions throughout the state. The CAIC draws from the pool of knowledge established in mountains around the world, pairs it with local observations from individual mountain ranges such as the San Juans, and spreads information in digestible ways to residents like you and me.

For winter recreationists, checking the CAIC avalanche forecast is the first step to a fun and safe day in the mountains. By providing this important information, the CAIC and avalanche researchers around the West are playing a vital role in helping visitors to the San Juans have safe, enjoyable trips into the mountains.

Through our winter programming and snow ambassador program, SJMA is also doing its part to show residents and visitors how to recreate responsibly in the snow. This winter, join us on one of our Full Moon Howler trips (hosted by the Durango Nordic Center), our biweekly Aprés Ski Science & Socials on Saturday afternoons outside the Outdoor Research tiny house north of Andrews Lake, or say “Hi” to our snow ambassador, John, next time you’re out for a ski tour near Molas Pass.

Alex Miller is the Montrose public lands ambassador for the San Juan Mountains Association.