Front Range Conditions
These resources are helpful for assessing the avalanche, snow, and weather conditions in the Front Range Mountains.
Avalanche Forecast – The Colorado Avalanche Information Center combines weather, terrain, and snowpack history to make short-term forecasts of the avalanche conditions in the Front Range.
Weather Forecast – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has point forecasts for the high passes of the Front Range including Berthoud Pass, Rollins Pass and Cameron Pass.
Travel Forecast – The Colorado Department of Transportation’s COTrip website provides insights into road conditions including updated pictures of highways.
One of the amazing aspects of Colorado skiing is the opportunity to ski every month of the year. On the Front Range of Colorado, backcountry enthusiasts can work deep pow stashes in the winter, drop into steep couloirs in the spring, and hike to permanent snowfields in the summer. Each season has a unique set of conditions that dictate the type and timing of backcountry skiing, and the arrival and departure of winter, spring, and summer varies each year by time, aspect and elevation. This website describes ski descents that are commonly used in the spring and summer seasons.
Winter (October through March)
Winter comes early to the high country of Colorado’s Front Range. October often sees the first significant snowfall, and historically November is one of the snowiest months in the state. The snow is dry and easily transportable by the unrelenting winds of winter. Backcountry skiers of the Front Range are often found seeking out stashes of powder in tree protected and leeward terrain during the winter. Skiable snow above tree line is a rarity, but the permanent snowfields can capture good snow on low wind intensity storms in the winter. In the early months of winter it is challenging to find a deep base to make turns on, but by late December the classic mid-winter powder lines of Berthoud Pass and Loveland Pass become reliable locations for fresh tracks after a storm. The snows of October, November, and December get the locals excited for a winter of skiing, but the snow deposited by these storms can often create the rotten bottom layers of the snowpack that are the basis for underlying snow instability all winter long. The presence of the faceted snow grains in this layer is one of the consistencies of the Front Range winter snowpack. It is there every year and varies by how deep it is and how strong the equally problematic middle and upper layers are.
Spring (April through June)
The spring brings a different set of conditions to the mountains of the Northern Front Range. The days are longer and warmer, and the snowpack on southern and eastern aspects at all elevations, followed by west and north, begins to transform from a highly delineated winter snowpack to a more predictable isothermal snowpack. After this transformation occurs, the snow softens during the morning and by 10 am and 11 am, depending on the aspect, delicious corn snow can be found. Corn snow is arguably the next best ski condition to powder. When timed right, the turns can be effortless. Spring snow conditions are not always consistent as the lower elevations defrost faster, and perfect corn conditions up high can lead the skier into a punchy slushfest lower down. Spring conditions may be present on the south and east faces, but winter can reign for much longer on north facing or high attitude peaks. Be very careful during the isothermal transition. This is a process, and as the upper layers transform, the lower layers of the snowpack may harbor winter conditions. There are years where winter conditions persist in the Front Range Mountains until June.
Ski descents that were unthinkable during winter conditions suddenly become possible with the isothermal snow. Skiers can predict the thawing of the snow in the morning and the arrival of wet avalanches in the afternoon. The high cirques of the Front Range can give skiers south facing runs in the morning and north facing runs in the early afternoon. The arrival of spring also heralds the opening of high altitude trailheads and roads, and a fleet of snowplows methodically attacks the deep deposits of winter. The Mount Evans Road is often open to the summit by Memorial Day. Suddenly vast amounts of terrain that were inaccessible during the middle of the winter are within walking distance of the parking lot.
Summer (June through August)
By summer the sun is high, the temperatures have risen, and the remaining snow has consolidated into one solid layer. The Front Range is graced with many permanent snowfields that hold skiable snow through the summer. The conditions vary by aspect, and by mid-summer the smooth surface snow can turn into challenging suncup conditions. Several of the high glaciers can form crevasses and bergschrunds as the mass of snow breaks away from the headwalls. Backcountry summer skiers now have a different method of approaching the ski routes. Skis and snowboards are strapped to backpacks, and hiking to the ski descent becomes the norm. The relentless winds of winter have eased and wildflowers are abundant in the high country during the summer. Some summer approaches can become challenging because the absence of snow reveals complicated terrain. During the winter and spring the snowfall and wind covered boulders, creeks, and gorges with a moderating blanket of snow. Approach and descent times can be longer in the summer due to increased terrain navigation, however the roads reaching the high country are more accessible.
Fall (September through November)
Snow can persist all year in the permanent snowfields and glaciers of the Northern Front Range. There are years when skiers have set the goal to ski every month of the year, and although it is entirely possible, it is the early fall that is the most challenging time to ski. The snowpack is often shallow, and a shallow snowpack can be the most dangerous. The snow that falls in October and November frequently transforms through a faceting process to a dangerous consistency of sugar. This rotten bottom of the snowpack is frequently the suspect weak layer in avalanches, and is known for shattering the bones of fall skiers who quickly plunged into this strength less snow on a descent. The steep snowfields of the range transform from summer snow to black ice, and new snowfall may not properly bond to this surface.
The weather on the Front Range is always changing and varies by elevation, aspect, and season. The weather is a significant contributor to determining the magnitude of objective hazards such as snow stability, wind chill, and temperature. An understanding of the weather of the Front Range Mountains is developed through a process of observation and experience. Always be prepared for winter at any time of the year because storms develop and move quickly through these mountains. Many of the ski descents described in this book are located on mountain faces and chutes that may be oriented in a direction that prevents you from observing the development of weather throughout the day.
The winter and spring storms that batter the peaks of the Front Range often originate from the Pacific and arrive on a northwest or southwest trajectory. The storms that dump the most snow are rotating monsters known as upslope storms. As these storms traverse the eastern edge of the Rockies they pull moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and hurl snowfall up the ramparts of the Front Range from an easterly direction. The rise from 5,000 feet to 14,000 feet releases copious amounts of moisture-laden snow on the range. If there are several big upslope storms early in the winter there can be an excellent base for skiing the entire season. The upslope storms of spring frequently fill in the gaps with sticky and heavy snow. Lines that had no snow are now in. The skiers of the Front Range have a love affair with the upslope storms, and they can be found planning sick days, dawn patrols, and tick lists with the arrival of the storm.
The summer brings a change in the weather patterns and precipitation. June is frequently a dry month, and July and August bring monsoonal flow to the Front Range. This monsoon is a southerly flow of moisture that can vary in intensity day to day. The mornings start clear, and then the clouds build up in the early afternoon to unleash powerful thunder and lightning storms with often heavy localized rain. If you are skiing on the east face of a mountain in the summer, your visibility of the monsoon build up to the west may be obstructed. In July and August you will want to be back to the car by early afternoon, or be prepared to be below tree-line hunker down in an unexposed area during the thunderstorm and lightning storm.
The wind of the Front Range is infamous in the backcountry ski community. The mountains of the Front Range are the final barrier to accessing the Great Plains for the predominantly westerly storms. Unencumbered, the wind accelerates from over 12'000 feet on the Continental Divide to 5,000 feet onto the Dust Bowl of the Colorado Prairie. Any snow that is deposited on an exposed slopes is victimized by the wind and sublimated back into atmosphere for an accelerated trip to Kansas. The winds are predominantly from the west, and the range is characterized by windswept west faces and snowy east faces.
The wind can also influence the condition of the snowpack in the spring. The coveted daily defrosting of frozen snow to corn snow in April, May, and June can be delayed by the wind. Many skiers have hunkered down on the high ridges of the Front Range hoping that the wind will abate long enough to allow the sun to defrost the upper inches of the spring snowpack. Additionally, many skiers at the trailhead choose to hide from the wind and put on their gear in the shelter of the car. The wind of the Front Range is omnipresent.
The sun also influences the location and condition of the skiing. Where the wind dictates where the snow will land, the sun dictates if it will stay and in what condition. The Front Range of Colorado receives over 300 days of sun per year, and is as well-known for the sun as the wind. The snow slopes that face east and south experience spring and summer much earlier than north and northeast facing slopes. Some high east facing slopes can receive sunlight immediately at dawn as the sun rises above the Eastern Plains.
The snowpack of the Front Range is complicated and analyzing the snow conditions to determine winter travel safety is based on experience and good judgment. It is outside of the scope of this website to educate backcountry skiers on how to assess snow conditions and make decisions based on these observations. Colorado has numerous resources for snow education including the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, backcountry ski guides, and avalanche courses to assist with the education of winter recreationalists. See our Resources page for some of these.
The Front Range snowpack is a continental snowpack. It is often shallow in the winter, highly influenced by wind, sun, snow loading, and then transforms in the spring to a more predictable form. Colorado’s continental snowpack is very dangerous and nearly 250 skiers, snowmobilers, and winter travelers have perished in avalanches since 1950. You should be nervous.
Why is this snowpack so dangerous? The high altitude, cold temperatures, shallow snowpack, and wind transport of the Colorado Mountains result in snowfall deposited in a series of layers that may have different characteristics. The crystalline shape of snowflakes transform due to exposure to wind, sun, and temperature, and once buried metamorphism can continue due to shallow depth and temperature gradients. The winds of winter can create rock hard wind slabs on the surface of the snow, and as these are buried by future snow events the hard layer is preserved within the snowpack. The metamorphism due to shallow depth, surface exposure, and temperature can result in the faceting of the deposited snow, and the crystals become angular and loosely packed. These buried layers will maintain varying characteristics within the snowpack throughout the winter, and snow pits will reveal a stratigraphy that resembles different layers in a cake. Dangerous slab and loose snow avalanches are frequent throughout the winter due to these challenges.
When spring arrives, the increased solar radiation and higher temperatures begin to transform the dangerous winter snow into an isothermal snowpack. During the day the temperature of the snow increases and water from melting begins to percolate through the snowpack, and then freezes at night. This daily melt-freeze cycle transforms the unpredictable winter layers into a single and more predictable layer. Avalanches can occur in the spring, and depending on the aspect, are more frequently wet slide releases than slab and loose snow. The spring snow warms around trees and rocks, and slides can be triggered by these hot spots. Each spring there is a cycle of release that varies by elevation and aspect, and skiers can see the trails of massive wet slides as the evidence of this warm release.
The mountains of the Front Range are complex and comprise numerous terrain challenges that backcountry skiers need to take into consideration. These challenges include, but are not limited to, altitude, inclines, and rocks.
Altitude: The Front Range is high. The ski descents and approaches described in this website range from 9,000 feet to over 14,000 feet in elevation. The range rises dramatically from 5,200 feet at the convergence of the Eastern Plains and the Rocky Mountains, to 14,259 feet at the summit of Longs Peak. The locals of the Front Range have an advantage by being able to sleep at altitudes of over 5,000 feet every night. If you are visiting from a lower altitude you are not used to the decreased oxygen levels, and need to spend time acclimating to the altitude before you cast out on a ski adventure. Consistent hydration and moderate exercise will assist the acclimation process.
Geography: The Front Range geography is diverse and the elevation ranges influence the distribution of moisture and vegetation throughout the range. The presence of moisture and trees can influence the quality of skiing. The western slope of the Front Range receives more moisture and less wind than the east side. This results in the west side of the range frequently having better mid-winter powder conditions than the east side. The elevation also influences the presence of trees. Tree line on the Front Range is approximately 11,500 feet. The high spruce-fir forests often have the best tree skiing in the mid-winter. Below the spruce-fir the forest type becomes more populated with pines and this does not retain snow as well as the spruce fir forest.
Terrain Hazards: Backcountry skiers must constantly keep an eye on the surrounding terrain for both navigation and snow safety. The terrain that the skier is on, below, and above can all contribute to avalanches. The couloirs, chutes, damaged vegetation, and avalanche scars will indicate the history of snow slides on a slope. The slope angle is a key terrain hazard because avalanches occur most frequently on slopes of 30 degrees to 45 degrees. The added weight and increased angle can stress the snowpack along with objective hazards such as wind, sun, and snowfall. Be aware of terrain traps around you including cliffs, streambeds, and forests. Additionally, there are permanent snowfields in the Front Range Mountains and it is open to debate if these glacial remnants are actually glaciers. It is not debatable that they have glacier-like terrain hazards and behaviors such as crevasses and bergschrunds. The path of a snowslide can take a skier through a landscape that adds complexity to skiing, avalanche, and rescue.
Travel in the Backcountry
Glacier and steep snow travel can be encountered on some of the routes described in this book. The firm spring snowpack, the steep couloirs, and the crevasses of the permanent snowfields require specialized equipment and skill to safely navigate their hazards. Crampons, ice axes, ropes, and protection may be needed for some of these routes. It is outside the scope of this book to educate on glacier and snow travel, but users should be prepared to encounter all types of conditions in the Front Range backcountry. Know how to stop yourself if you slide. There are some ski routes that may require a form of aid to descend the route. This could include down climbing ice falls, rappelling cliffs, skiing on a rope and anchor belay, and scrambling down rocks. This website attempts to identify routes where aid may be needed, but aid is a personal decision. Backcountry skiers should have the equipment, skill, and confidence to encounter all forms of snow travel on any given day.
The Front Range has several high altitude paved roads that are frequently used for ski shuttling by backcountry users. Skiers are dropped off at the top, ski down, and hitch a ride back to the car. Where appropriate, the approach sections describe areas of the Front Range where car shuttling is commonly used and encountered. If you are driving up one of these high roads and see a skier or skiers with their thumb out for a ride, don’t be surprised. Please stop, pick them up, ask them how rad their run was, and accumulate good karma points for shuttling them up the mountain.
Backcountry ski equipment is as diverse as the methods of glisse. Each sub-sport of backcountry skiing has specialized equipment and skiers have personal preferences for what they want to carry. Please consult a mentor or a backcountry ski guide to learn more about what you should carry for the ski routes that you want to climb and descend. In general, skiers need to be prepared to potentially spend the night in the backcountry if something goes wrong. Backcountry skiers should carry head protection, warm clothes, food, water, snow and avalanche safety equipment, climbing and descending gear, repair equipment, shelter, directions, light, communication technology, and friends.