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Snowstorm hits San Juan Mountains

Avalanche risk increases, little snow sticks in lower valleys

Snowfall arrives this week in the San Juan Mountains, elevating the avalanche risk for the area.

A low-pressure Pacific storm heavy in moisture is moving over Southwest Colorado and is expected to drop 6 to 14 inches in the higher elevations, said Ben Moyer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“It is going to wring out mostly in the mountains,” he said.

The heaviest mountain snowfall was forecast for late Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon and evening.

By the end of the storm Thursday, Rico could get up to 14 inches; Telluride, 8 inches; Silverton, 10 inches; Purgatory, 4 inches; and Dolores, 2 to 3 inches. Cortez and Durango are expected to get 1 to 2 inches.

Mountain passes were mostly icy and snow-covered Tuesday afternoon in Southwest Colorado, including (clockwise) Coal Bank, Molas, Wolf Creek and Lizard Head. The National Weather Service is calling for more snowfall, especially in the San Juan Mountains, through Wednesday. (Courtesy of Colorado Department of Transportation)

Mountain passes were snowy and icy Tuesday afternoon, including Coal Bank, Molas and Lizard Head. Red Mountain Pass was wet but clear of ice and snow.

A passenger vehicle traction and commercial chain law was in effect for Coal Bank and Molas passes on U.S. Highway 550, north of Purgatory Resort.

Avalanche danger increases

An avalanche watch for Southwest Colorado mountains is in effect through 7 a.m. Thursday, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Beginning Tuesday, the western San Juan Mountains were rated as a “moderate” avalanche risk, or Level 2 out of five categories. On Wednesday, the risk for the area jumps to “high,” or Level 4, for below treeline and near treeline, and “considerable,” Level 3, above treeline.

Avalanche season has begun, evidenced by this slab release on Coal Bank Pass on Sunday. (Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

The avalanche watch is in effect for areas surrounding Ouray, Silverton, Telluride, Lizard Head Pass, Rico, Vallecito and the La Plata Mountains, according to the CAIC report.

The storm was expected to bring heavy snowfall and strong wind beginning Tuesday night.

Backcountry travelers “could trigger an avalanche on slopes where weak early season snow is preserved under a slab of recent storm snow,” the CAIC report states. “Northerly slopes at all elevations and high-elevation slopes facing east are where you are most likely to find this strong over weak combination and trigger an avalanche.”

Cracking and collapsing are warning signs that a slope could slide, and people should retreat to slopes less than 35 degrees in steepness.

Cortez precipitation below normal

Early winter snowfall is helping to reduce drought conditions, but snowfall for the San Miguel, Dolores and San Juan River basins was still at 78% of normal as of Tuesday, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service Snotel report.

The Dolores and San Miguel basins are at 83% of normal, and the Animas Basin is at 76% of normal.

The long-term drought in Southwest Colorado has eased somewhat, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. As of Nov. 29, western Montezuma County was in “moderate” drought, Level 2 on a scale rising from zero to five. Eastern Montezuma County and all of La Plata County are rated “abnormally dry,” or Level 0 out of five on the drought severity scale.

Cortez is below average for precipitation at 63% for the year, said Jim Andrus, Cortez weather observer for the National Weather Service.

As of November, Cortez had 6.92 inches of precipitation for the year, well below the yearly average of 11.79 inches.

“We have a long way to go. So far, these storms have just been teasing us with drizzle,” Andrus said.

Ice climbing rescue
The Ouray Mountain Rescue team responded to an injured ice climber on the Ribbon route outside of Ouray on Nov. 21. (Courtesy Sam Rushing)
An injured ice climber near Ouray is transported to safety. (Courtesy Ouray Mountain Rescue Team.)

As winter recreation ramps, so do accidents.

The Ouray Mountain Rescue Team responded to an injured climber on the Ribbon ice climb just outside Ouray on Nov. 21, according to the team’s Facebook page.

A rescue team was able to reach the patient, stabilize the injury and package the climber for transport out of the area in chilly, backcountry conditions.

“Lots of human power and hours go into executing a plan, accessing and assessing the patient, and coordinating an exit strategy safely,” the Facebook post said.


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