Video of a ski patrol-triggered avalanche in Loge Bowl, in out-of-bounds terrain on the northwest the side of Aspen Highlands, over the weekend. This is a different slide, into a different drainage, than the one that damaged the home in Conundrum Creek. Courtesy Lou Eppelsheimer.
The natural avalanche cycle responsible for closing Castle Creek Road on Saturday also produced a slide of historic proportions that ran 3,000 vertical feet, clearing snow from the majority of the Five Fingers area on Highlands Ridge.
The slide, with a start zone stretching over a mile wide, damaged a house in the Conundrum Creek Valley and likely felled thousands of trees. It had so much momentum that it crossed the creek and continued up the opposite side of the valley.
The damaged home was unoccupied when the slide ran sometime early Saturday morning. A “defensive wedge” made of snow was uphill of the residence, but the home “still suffered damage, [including] a destroyed chimney, shattered windows and maybe more,” according to a report posted by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
A Pitkin County press release noted that emergency workers in the area could tell that snow was up to “the second floor of the residence and that windows on the second floor appear to have been damaged.”
The Highlands Ridge avalanche released naturally, according to the CAIC report.
“Not a path or two off the ridge but everything from the Five Fingers to the K Chutes,” Brian Lazar of the CAIC wrote in the report, which is posted online. “The K Chutes ran as big as I’ve seen them go, and that was just a small portion. All of the Five Fingers ran. While [the] multiple start zones … feed multiple feeder paths, they all share a common runout. This all looks like it was one major event with the crown line connecting multiple paths and breaking a mile wide or more.”
An additional large natural avalanche ran on a northwest-facing slope in Maroon Bowl, according to the CAIC report.
All that is in addition to a series of slides that ran from the Aspen Mountain ridge, burying Castle Creek Road overnight on Saturday and causing the road to be closed to residents and visitors until 8 p.m. Saturday.
Alex Burchetta, director of operations with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, noted that a combination of luck and hard work allowed officials to reopen the road in a matter or hours, instead of days.
The slide that closed the road was triggered by an initial avalanche that released from near the top of the ridge, Burchetta said officials have come to believe. That slide did not run all the way to the road, but it triggered a second slide that did cover the road. A 500-foot section of road was buried in 12 to 15 feet of avalanche debris at roughly mile marker 4, four miles up from the roundabout, near South Hayden Road.
Officials were able to clear a one-lane path through the debris field within a few hours of the slide’s discovery, but due to concerns about continued avalanche danger, the passage was available only for emergency use. Residents and visitors in the 77 homes located above the slide were not allowed to come through.
“By and large, everyone was in great spirits and really understanding of the situation,” Burchetta said.
One group of visitors staying in the valley at one point attempted to cross the slide path on foot, but were turned around by sheriff’s deputies.
“We had to educate them on the dangers,” Burchetta said.
Pitkin County emergency management officials engaged Telluride Helitrax, a helicopter skiing outfit that also helps avalanche mitigation experts, to come in and drop explosives over other known avalanche start zones, hoping to release potential further slides that could come down in a controlled fashion.
Telluride Helitrax personnel dropped 10 15-pound charges from the air in a Saturday afternoon operation, but the effort did not induce any more slides.
If it had, the impact to Castle Creek Road and homes in the valley would have taken on a longer timeframe, as crews would have had to clear more debris from the road.
Burchetta said officials had contingency plans in place to maintain the availability of emergency services to Castle Creek Valley residents and were prepared to stage fire, law enforcement and medical personnel at Ashcroft. First responders on Saturday developed a full accounting of who was stranded above the slide path and what medical needs they might have, Burchetta said.
No emergency responses were required on Saturday, he added.
Burchetta said that the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and specifically Matt Huber, a former Snowmass ski patroller now working for CAIC, provided critical expertise that helped officials get through the day.
“We couldn’t have done it without the guidance from him and CAIC as a whole,” Burchetta said.
Mountain Rescue Aspen, Aspen Police Department, Aspen Ambulance, Pitkin County Road and Bridge, Pitkin County GIS, Pitkin County Emergency Management, Snowmass Police Department, the U.S. Forest Service, the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center, the Aspen Skiing Co. and the city of Aspen also provided assistance, according to a county press release.
The county used an emergency-messaging system on Saturday that called all phone numbers in the area, leaving recorded messages with updates on the situation. Burchetta said the system has been deployed in other emergences, including the Lake Christine Fire.
“We tend not to use it unless we have to,” Burchetta said. “We would rather use a passive system [like emails and text messages]. … [But] at the risk of oversharing, we wanted to notify everyone of what was happening.”
After the helicopter operation finished up around 4:30 p.m. and didn’t produce more slides, Pitkin County road and bridge crews spent the next few hours clearing the rest of the debris out of the road, finishing by 8 p.m.
No one was injured throughout Saturday’s activity.
The city of Aspen’s municipal water system also made it through the day unscathed, Burchetta said, adding that county and city utilities officials were in touch throughout the incident. The slide that closed the road reached Castle Creek, but did not block it enough to curtail flows such that they would impact the city’s water delivery system. A headgate that collects water from the creek for treatment and distribution throughout the Aspen area is located roughly a half mile below the slide path.
More than 6 feet of snow falling on the central Colorado mountains in the last week — much of it of the heavy, wet variety — kicked off a natural avalanche cycle not seen in a generation. Multiple slides, some induced, have run across high country highways, temporarily closing roads at times including Interstate 70 and Colorado 91 between Leadville and Copper Mountain. McClure Pass, between Redstone and Paonia, was also closed this week due to avalanche danger but has reopened.
Avalanche danger in the Aspen zone was rated as high on Sunday and was forecasted to drop to considerable on Monday.
Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.