Shooting down avalanches on the Wolf Creek Pass
EVERY morning on Wolf Creek Pass, the highway is shut down and a Howitzer fires 105mm rounds into the hills. Skiers and early travelers over the pass are no strangers to the booming echo of avalanche mitigation at work.
Matt Huber, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, described the work as part of a presentation with the Rio Grande National Forest and San Juan Mountains Association Forest Specialist Series.
His Jan. 25 talk was less of a course on avalanche science and backcountry safety and more of a community awareness session on how avalanches are dealt with in the South San Juan Mountains and on either side of the Continental Divide.
Huber’s forecast area straddles the Continental Divide. This area also includes Wolf Creek Pass, Slumgullion Pass, and Cumbres and La Manga Pass. Wolf Creek Pass, however, is what Huber spends most of his time looking at. Huber says the main hazard in his forecast area is the west side of Wolf Creek Pass.
The Colorado Division of Transportation contracts with the CAIC from Nov. 1 to April 31 every year to provide daily forecasts. These daily forecasts allow CDOT to plan mitigation efforts and keep the highways open.
Huber said the Howitzer was shot just about every day during the week of January 16. The gun is permanently mounted in a military-regulated shed on the pass, which allows CDOT to have a gun calibrated to its designated target – meaning they can shoot the gun at night.
Shooting the Howitzer at night may seem dangerous, but with careful calibration it is always on target. This allows less worry about traffic. Huber said traffic must always move on the pass, as the chances of a car getting hit by an avalanche on the highway are significantly lower if traffic is moving.
Huber advised that anyone who finds themselves stopped in traffic in an avalanche zone, should do everything they can to safely leave that area.
Huber’s main goal is to keep any avalanches that occur on the highway as small as possible. Daily mitigation is necessary because Huber says the pass has “no joke avalanche paths” that pose serious threats to the highway and traffic.
As Huber succinctly said, “we shoot frequently.”
Colorado, by and large, is the most dangerous state for avalanches in the nation. Since 1950, the number of avalanche deaths in each state has been recorded. Colorado sits at the top with 270 avalanche-related deaths. Then comes Alaska with 145.
Why is Colorado such an avalanche-prone state?
Huber says it’s in part due to an incredibly weak snowpack year after year. Colorado’s jump from cold to hot to dry creates thin snow, “then we dump a lot of people on top of it.”
It comes down to people driving over the mountain passes in droves, backcountry adventurers having easy access to dangerous terrain, and massive numbers of people who visit the ski areas each year.
The CAIC has “totally revamped” its forecasting site. Forecasts at that once were posted at 7 a.m. – when Huber says everyone has already made plans for the day – are now posted at 5 p.m. the night before.
What if a gnarly storm comes in at 2 a.m. and dumps a couple of feet on the mountains? In Boulder, the CAIC employs forecasters who work the early morning hours to update the forecast zones with any variables that occurred overnight. This, Huber said, allows forecasters to change danger levels in real time.
For the forecasts to be accurate, what Huber really needs is as much field feedback as he can get. He’s got some regular backcountry-goers who send him texts with conditions of certain areas. On the site, there is an Observation section that allows for anyone to submit a report.
On the good side of things, the atmospheric river that soaked the West Coast earlier this month had some leftovers for the Rocky Mountains. Huber said that before the atmospheric river, the South San Juan snowpack was sitting at around 69 percent; now it’s somewhere closer to 130 percent.
“It’s been really, really helpful for us.”
With that good moisture, though, Huber is hoping for a break in the high pressure cycle just for some respite in the mountains. Despite the high pressure, he highlighted the snowfall during week of January 11-16: 5 inches of water in snow equivalents, and 50 inches of snow on the pass alone.