Mountain Town News: Prodigious storms both thrilling and a challenge (column) |

Mountain Town News: Prodigious storms both thrilling and a challenge (column)

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

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 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 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, 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.

This time, the avalanche story has no obituary

DURANGO, Colo. – An unnamed man lives today in Durango partly because he and his companion took all the right tools on a backcountry skiing trip. But he also got lucky. Very lucky.

The man, who the Durango Telegraph says declined identification for fear of scaring the bejesus out of his loved ones, had skinned up the Deer Creek drainage between Durango and Silverton. It’s considered to be a “safe” place when avalanche danger is high.

But he and his buddy, 49-year-old Mark Helmich, a split-boarder, lost their way during the stormy day. Beginning their descent, they were triggering slides. Mistakes had been made. They chose not to return uphill and risk triggering even larger avalanches. Instead, they elected to ride down the final pitch to Highway 550, where their car was parked.

That’s when the snow slid, taking him over a 25-foot cliff and burying him in the pile of snow along the highway.

Helmich immediately charged over the cliff, too. Time was critical. They both had avalanche transceivers. He located the signal from his companion then used a probe pole to locate the body. This took five minutes. Then he dug furiously with his shovel.

“I did a whole lot of praying,” he told the Telegraph. “It’s definitely pretty lonely, being by yourself and digging. It was feeling surreal. Until you’re in that situation, you can’t understand what it’s like.”

More luck came along in the form of Mike Barney, who is an instructor at the Silverton Avalanche School. He took over the digging from the exhausted Helmich. Finally, 20 minutes after the slide had occurred, they had cleared the snow to the head of the victim.

He was still breathing, still conscious. He had been unable to deploy the airbag, but did mange to get the straw from an AvaLung into his mouth. It was just enough to save his life.

The moral of this story probably should be that you need every tool available in avalanche terrain along with competence in use of those tools. But add it all up and you may still need some luck to survive even a small avalanche.

Mike Cooperstein, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, points out that 25 percent of all avalanche victims die from being hit by trees or rocks or falling off cliffs even before being buried by snow. About 72 percent of avalanche victims die from asphyxia, or breathing their own carbon dioxide underneath the snow.

He says the statistics supporting the usefulness of saving lives is more clear-cut for air bags, but statistics supporting the use of AvaLungs are promising as well.

The website for Black Diamond Equipment, manufacturer of AvaLungs, had this testimonial from an individual identified as “Jeremy” from Durango.

“I have worn my AvaLung for at least six years without ever having to use it,” he wrote. “I don’t ski every run with it in my mouth but it’s great to have it available for those scarier than normal runs. Last Monday I triggered an avalanche and ended up immobile, buried under four feet of debris. Fortunately, I was able to keep the AvaLung mouthpiece in my mouth during and after the slide. I was able to breathe normally for 15 to 20 minutes while my partner initiated a beacon and probe search and dug me out.”

He added this: “CAIC reminded me the next day that over 15 minutes was often fatal due to asphyxiation. I escaped without injury at least partially due to my AvaLung.”

The CAIC says that if everyone wore an avalanche transceiver and an airbags, two of three people who die from asphyxia would live.

Comforting immigrants, recalling past turbulence

TELLURIDE, Colo. – A gathering called Community in Solidarity was organized by public officials in Telluride on Sunday evening.

The intent of the meeting, explained Amy Levek, a San Miguel County commissioner, was to tell people of other nationalities in Telluride that “You are an integral part of our community, and what is coming out of Washington D. C. does not represent how this community thinks.”

San Miguel County and Telluride have not designated themselves as sanctuaries for illegal immigrants.

Octavio Humberto Verdin Garcia, a bakery employee, told the Telluride Daily Planet that he and his co-workers have work visas, but they remain concerned that Congress could recall the visas and discontinue the program.

About 100 miles to the south, historians in the Durango area turned their attention to a time about a century ago when white nationalism flared in the United States.

In the 1920s, Ku Klux Klan chapters were established in many towns and cities, including Bayfield, located in the piñon and juniper country 20 miles east of Durango.

There, a locked trunk at a former community building was found to contain the white capes and pointed hats worn by KKK members in their rituals and public demonstrations. The Durango Telegraph explains that the trove contained the names of various people still remembered in the community: a school bus driver, a janitor, somebody whose wife taught at the school.

KKKers felt threatened by immigrants flowing into the community after World War I. They burned crosses at Latino work camps at a uranium processing plant, according to research by Jessica Thulson. The area had very few African-Americans. The focus of the cross-burning was directed at Latinos, Catholics, and Jews.

Andrew Gulliford, a history professor at Fort Lewis College, explained that the KKK chapter in Bayfield “absolutely reflects what was happening nationally in the 1920s… Change was coming, and small towns like Bayfield were digging in their heels.”

Duane Smith, a retired history professor, cautioned against people looking down their noses at their ancestors through today’s lens. “What your relative did was not something to be proud of, but who’s to say we wouldn’t have been members, too?” he said.

Santa Fe mayor proposes to tax sugary beverages

SANTA FE, N.M. – Javier Gonzales, the mayor of Santa Fe, proposes to tax sugary beverages. He wants to use the estimated $7.8 million that would be raised annually to fund preschool programs.

Childhood educators have been “screaming at the top of their lungs that if we want to find a game-changing policy that will truly assure every child has access to the American Dream, you invest in them at their earliest years,” he said at a recent town hall meeting covered by the Santa Fe New Mexican.

The boosted programs would benefit 1,000 prekindergarten children in Santa Fe. In New Mexico, an overwhelming majority of children fail to meet reading standards in the third grade, according to Gov. Susana Martinez.

Banff calculates strategy for boosting its recycling

BANFF, Alberta – Banff town officials propose that only clear garbage bags be allowed at commercial properties. The intent of the proposed requirement would be to create the transparency of what is thrown away in order to increase the rate of recycling of cardboard and organics.

A survey found that 80 percent of businesses that responded to a survey support the requirement. However, only a quarter of the businesses responded.

Stavros Karlos, a Banff councilor, is among the supporters. “It’s not onerous,” he said. “Other places in the world have figured it out. We can figure it out.”

Figuring out the place for wolves among us

CANMORE, Alberta – Wolves have been in the news from Alberta to Wyoming.

In Alberta, 10,000 people have signed a petition that they want wolves managed differently. Hundreds of wolves are killed in Alberta each year. Sometimes they are shot from helicopters. Other times they are poisoned with bait laced with strychnine.

The motives for killing the wolves are varied. Livestock ranchers want to reduce predation of cattle. Another motive is to reduce predation of the dwindling number of caribou in the province.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook reports that municipalities and other local governments are increasingly offering bounties for dead wolves. Hunting and trapping groups have also adopted bounties.

The petition seeks to prohibit the posting of bounties on wolves by individuals, clubs, special interest groups, or municipalities. As well, strychnine would be banned.

Kevin Van Tighem, a Canmore resident and critic of the bounties, tells the newspaper that Alberta should manage wolf problems, not wolf numbers. Instead of randomly killing wolves, he said, wolves should be targeted specifically in the case of depredation problems. That keeps wolf packs intact.

“The theory around this – and the theory is well supported by research – is that when you have a stable wolf pack structure, you have old wolves teaching young wolves how to make a living,” he said.

“That’s one reason wolves are a social animal that stay in these groups for extended periods of time, except the ones that want to reproduce and go out and disperse. But the rest of them stay in the pack. So you have a constant teaching mechanism….When you break that up, what you’re doing is truncating that education process, and you’re creating an inefficient hunting unit that is sort of blundering a bit, and they kill what’s easy. So it’s likely they’re going to kill livestock, because livestock are easy.”

He said current practices also increase survival of pups, because competition for food within the pack is reduced, in turn leading to an increase in the reproductive rate.

But what about the caribou? Dave Hervieux, the province’s caribou management coordinator, pointed to industrial development in caribou range which primarily explains why only 4 of the 15 caribou populations are stable or increasing. But he said there are more wolves in caribou range, “and those wolves are preying upon caribou at greater rates that are not natural.” In most cases, that predation is greater than what caribou populations can sustain.

In Wyoming, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney – the daughter of former Vice president Dick Cheney – is attempting to override the Endangered Species Act in order to give Wyoming control over wolves. In this, she continues the efforts of her predecessors from Wyoming. The same thing is going on in the Great Lakes states where wolves are found.

“Wyoming should be able to manage the gray wolf without outside interference,” the congresswoman said in a statement quoted by the Jackson Hole News&Guide. The newspaper notes that a court in 2016 ruled that federal authorities were responsible for the nearly 400 gray wolves in Wyoming. That case was appealed, and a ruling is expected any day now.

Congress during the last 40 years has rarely removed federal jurisdictions from management of endangered or threatened species. However, it did so in the case of wolves in Montana and Idaho.

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