Prodigious storms both thrilling and a challenge for mountain towns
by Allen Best
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Jim Schmidt, a former mayor of Crested Butte, has been shoveling snow there for 40 years. Sunday was the first day in three weeks this winter that he could take a break. That’s good, because he’s running out of places to put it.
“I’m a pretty tall guy, and I am throwing it pretty much as high as I can throw it, 7.5 to 8 feet,” he said Monday afternoon. “It’s too high for a snow-blower.”
Schmidt remembers a winter about nine years ago that stacks up with this one and perhaps several in the late 1970s. By early January, 365 inches had fallen in one of those winters, 1977-78, compared to 155 this winter.
Since Christmas, though, the storms this winter have been prodigious. Writing in the Crested Butte News, staffer Alyssa Johnson said she felt a “thrill at living in a place that can get so much snow, and where the people celebrate its arrival.”
Where to put the snow?
“The general rule is that your snow shouldn’t leave your property,” said Peter Daniels, the deputy marshal for Crested Butte. “Unless you’re paying to have someone come haul the snow away, you need to find a way to keep it out of your neighbor’s area and out of town streets and paths.”
Space is becoming an issue. When Schmidt got to Crested Butte, fewer people had cars. Now everybody has a car, and some people have several. Vacant lots that once were used as snow dumps have mostly been built on. But the town has invested heavily in snow-moving equipment. It now has three front-end loaders and a grader that can be used to move snow around and, ultimately, dump it at a site just outside of town.
Another difference is this: Snow this winter has been wet and heavy, not light and fluffy. Down-valley about 30 miles at Gunnison, it has actually rained.
All this has created a mess and heightened dangers. Because of concerns about safety for buses, schools were closed for the first time since Schmidt arrived 40 years ago. “And the snow keeps coming and coming,” school superintendent Doug Tredway told the Crested Butte News.
Warmer temperatures have been a theme as mountain towns have grappled with this winter’s snow.
In Breckenridge, the roof of a conference center collapsed under the weight of nearly 49 inches of snow. The snow was more moisture laden than is usually the case with a comparable depth in mid-winter.
Officials tell the Summit Daily News that the 4,500-square-foot flat roof had been constructed in 1972, when snow-loading standards were less sophisticated. Still, flat roofs are common in Summit County and building collapses are rare.
In Idaho’s Wood River Valley, where Ketchum and Sun Valley are located, the water equivalent of the snowpack was 139 percent of normal as of last week, the Natural Resource Conservation Service reported. The Idaho Mountain Express says local officials urged that older, flat-roofed structures be shoveled when loads reach 60 pounds per square foot.
Durango, at 6,500 feet in elevation, has had heavy rains this winter, while snow has been falling at higher elevations. The snowpack is 171 percent of the median. The city is often at the nexus of rain and snow, the Durango Herald observes. But the warmth this winter has startled many people.
“It’s uncanny the fact that we’re 50 degrees in early to mid-January—very unusual—so it’s been strange for us,” said Tony Vicari, interim director of the local airport..
Can rising global temperatures explain the unusually mild winter, the Herald wanted to know.
Norv Larson of the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, Colo., said no one winter is evidence of global warming. More clearly identifiable in explaining the warmth is the western Pacific storm track that has defined the first half of this winter.