Quandary: Wise Mountain Cabin, and what’s up with orographic lift?
January 6, 2015
What's the history of the old cabin up on Wise Mountain, known as the Wise Mountain Cabin?
I proposed to my wife up there one night this week last year (Dec. 19, 2013), and it would be cool to know some history of it.
The night I proposed, we cooked over the wood-burning stove inside and stayed mostly warm, thanks to the warmth that provided. It hasn't been the most up-kept place; there is no floor, but the roof is sturdy, and large tin shingles are held down below the wind with rocks. That night, I added some temporary solar-powered Christmas lights, and the full moon illuminated the ski slopes of Breckenridge in the distance beyond the silhouette of the backside of Bald Mountain. A few hundred yards down the other side of the mountain are the remnants of some other old structures that might have been used in mining. One tower about the size of a windmill stands taller than the rest. We arrived by snowmobile, but it was not an easy road with all the snow drifts, so lots of snow had to be shoveled (the day before) for a safe path to my surprise proposal.
The configuration of Summit’s mountains means that additional cool temperatures and moisture can stay in the area longer than in places with less mountainous bliss.
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I would imagine yours was one of the nicer nights ever spent in the cabin at Wise Mountain. I admire your gumption; that could have turned into a long night in a remote place, but it sounds like congratulations are in order instead!
For those unaware, Wise Mountain sits near the middle fork of the Swan River and is accessible by North Fork Swan River trail, Saints John and Deer Creek trails. All trails leading into the cabin are definitely serious terrain, though. If you decide to make the journey, make sure you have a vehicle that can handle it and proper equipment in case you get stuck. Your best bet in the winter is to use a snowmobile for access. These might not be goat trails, but they are still steep and can get dicey at points. If you are looking for some incredible views, though, it's worth the journey.
To get back to your question, the cabin on Wise Mountain was built in 1878 for use by the Wise Mountain Silver Mining Claim. The other buildings you saw nearby were also extensions of the mine, which was an elevator shaft that reached 1,200 feet from base to summit.
At the time of its construction there was a mining town called Swandyke that sat directly below the cabin. Summit was a major hub for mining since the railroad passed through and the stages routed through here before that. To give you an idea of how big this area was, this old goat managed to catch the Ziegfield Follies when they performed at the Tabor Opera House in Leadville, which was built just one year after the Wise Mountain cabin, in 1879. If you are interested in mining history, please make your way to the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum in Leadville.
Currently, the cabin is used as an emergency shelter and kept stocked year-round. It is available for use by anyone who needs it, but it's asked that you leave the cabin in the same or better shape than it was in when you got there. This means not only that you should leave the rocks on the roof to keep the shingles in place, but if you decide to have a roaring fire, don't be a jerk and leave without replacing the wood you've burned. You can also learn a lot about the economy of bartering by keeping an eye on this cabin; you are supposed to replace items you use with items of equal value. As you may know, one man's three-ply is another man's leaves.
WHAT'S OROGRAPHIC LIFT?
Orographic lift is what it takes to get this old goat moving every morning. Well, sort of. It actually refers to what happens when air meets a mountain. Just like any of us, the air has to figure out a way past the behemoth landscape change, and the easiest route is actually straight up. This means a few things for people living and playing at the top of the mountain. First, the change in elevation causes the air to cool (the part that gets old goats moving a little quicker). Also, as it rises and cools, the air gains moisture. For all of the ski bums and lifties in Summit, this is cause to rejoice. The configuration of Summit's mountains means that additional cool temperatures and moisture can stay in the area longer than in places with less mountainous bliss. It also means that the snow falls in larger quantities, equaling more powder days and more reasons to stay and play. This is one reason you often see ski resorts pop up in groupings; the conditions in certain areas are just built for better snowfall and snowpack. As the website for Breckenridge Ski Resort explains, orographic lift is responsible for the 300 inches of snow Breck averages annually.
Other terms that refer to this same weather pattern are upslope flow, topographic uplift and forced land lifting, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Whatever term you use, they all mean we can end up with some strange weather patterns.
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