San Juan Mountains a laboratory for the study of avalanches

/ / History, Stewardship, Winter

By Alex Miller

The San Juan Mountains Association works in partnership with our federal public lands partners to ensure that visitors to our mountains can continue to enjoy the grandiose viewsheds, beautiful hiking trails, world class off-roading, designated Wilderness Areas, and incredible winter recreation opportunities that make this area great. 

Along with these claims to fame, the San Juans are also known for the huge number of avalanches they produce in the winter. Avalanches are cascading piles of snow, ice, and debris that occur on slopes steeper than thirty 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 wonderful resources can help visitors to southwest Colorado stay safe this winter. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) and the San Juan Mountains Association’s public lands stewardship programming both strive to inform winter recreationists on how to stay safe and recreate responsibly this winter.

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 on how to survive their commutes to the mine, and when disaster struck, whole communities participated in rescue efforts (Di Stefano 2015). With the advent of winter recreation after World War II, local avalanche knowledge rapidly developed into a field of research with help from the US Forest Service and ski areas they managed (National Forest Foundation 2015). As the field grew, so too did the research locations, and what better place to study avalanches than the San Juan Mountains.

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 (INSTAAR History). The project’s goal was to study what caused so many avalanches here and how to mitigate the hazard they created along HWY 550. Researchers brought their avalanche experience 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 HWY 550 and similar mountain highways. Thus, the San Juans became not only a hub for avalanches, but a hub for their study.

After an avalanche buried and killed HWY 550 snow plow driver Eddie Imel in 1992, CDOT began sponsoring the CAIC, an organization responsible for studying and forecasting avalanche conditions throughout the state (Knox Williams 2020). The CAIC draws from the pool of knowledge established in mountains around the world, pairs it with local observations from individual mountain ranges like 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 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, the San Juan Mountains Association is also doing its part in showing 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 bi-weekly 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.