Feb 1, 2024 - News

Colorado avalanche danger is real. These apps can help.

An avalanche in Waterfall Canyon south of Ophir that killed a backcountry snowboarder. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center

An avalanche in Waterfall Canyon south of Ophir that killed a backcountry snowboarder. Photo: Courtesy of Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Most avalanche deaths are attributed to decisions that backcountry explorers make in extreme terrain.

  • A number of new smartphone apps want to take out the guesswork.

Why it matters: Colorado leads the nation in avalanche deaths, and while fatalities are trending lower this year, the conditions are still unstable.

  • The state reported one fatality so far this season: A backcountry snowboarder killed in Waterfall Canyon south of Ophir.

Threat level: A series of powerful winter storms starting this weekend is expected to elevate the statewide avalanche danger rating from moderate to considerable, or 3 on a 5-point scale.

  • A dry period in December and January created a weak layer in the snowpack that made it easier for subsequent snow layers to slide, and this week's warm spell is doing the same.

By the numbers: Since October 2023, Colorado has recorded 3,010 avalanches — with more frequent natural slides — putting the state on pace to exceed the yearly average of 5,000, officials report.

What they're saying: "The potential to see fairly reactive, easy-to-trigger avalanches into the weekend and into next week is definitely in the forecast," Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, tells John.

Be smart: When traveling in the backcountry, you need to know the danger level and types of avalanche problems, as well as the slope angle along the path. The avalanche information center reports both daily for 15 different areas in Colorado.

The intrigue: The new apps are helping to make it easier to digest that information.

  • AspectAvy uses public data on snowpack stability, avalanche problems and slope angle to suggest safer routes. It also hopes to educate users on how to overcome biases and improve trip planning.
  • The popular onX Backcountry navigation app recently added a tool to map avalanche terrain exposure in parts of Colorado and two other Western states with plans to expand coverage areas in the future.
  • Other apps like CalTopo and Gaia GPS offer map layers that display slope angle to help plan trips and routes.

Yes, but: To work, users need to know how to read the data and understand what it means.

  • "There are more tools out there and I think that's a good thing," Greene says. But, he added, "we have to pair all of those with education, equipment and paying attention to what's happening in the natural environment."
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