Route Finder: Learn to read Mother Nature’s many faces in the High Country
Everybody loves to complain about the weather — the one thing you certainly can’t control. Perhaps this says something about our world: People feel out of control.
In the wilderness, success usually involves having luck with the weather, and being both lucky and smart is even better. If you think about it, the weather is usually responsible for most failures in the backcountry. Being diligent about how the weather develops helps lead to success and safety in all your backcountry endeavors. And, maybe you won’t even end up getting wet.
We have dozens (even hundreds) of weather issues to deal with in the High Country. From rain, graupel, fog and snow to lightning, extreme cold and wind, Summit County sees almost all these phenomena, usually within about a 10-minute span. (Not really, but it sometimes feels like it.) How many times have you gone from open windows to a maxed-out heater to opening windows again? Our weather is very dynamic.
Patterns and forecasts
Learning the patterns of how these phenomena develop is the foundation for planning your approach for a day in the hills.
Planning usually begins with an idea of what you want to accomplish. You mull over the details of the route and come up with a distance. This gives you a good idea of how long it will take to get it done.
Now, you need to find a weather window to make this happen. It’s time for some research, so hit the computer and look at the forecasts (I like the seven-day point forecast on the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration website). Do I need a window in the morning? The sun usually shines in the morning. Do I need a window in the afternoon? Solar heating of windward zones usually causes afternoon showers, some of which bring lightning (though this is mainly a spring and summer phenomena, knowing this can help you plan your objectives). If you want to ride your bike and don’t want muddy trails, maybe the morning is the time.
We get a few different patterns for rainfall in the Central Rocky Mountains. Early in the spring we see evaporative rain. All of the moisture to the windward zone (or any direction) gets heated by the morning sun, and that moisture then creates afternoon thunderstorms that are fairly short lived. At altitude you can see thundersnow, especially early in the spring. By the evening, the skies usually clear up and we get those beautiful sunsets.
The next type of rainstorm is from the monsoon. This is a southwesterly or southeasterly flow that brings moisture inland from the warm waters of the Gulf of California or the Gulf of Mexico. The southwesterly flow is more common and less powerful. When the flow is coming from the Gulf of Mexico, from the southeast, you get the floods on the Front Range. These monsoon cycles bring thunderstorms at any time of the day, and the duration of the storms can be much longer. Monsoon season also benefits from solar action for cloud building, so there may be some early windows for treks. This phenomenon is the most unpredictable for planning.
The last phenomenon is a good, old-fashioned cold front. This is a storm that sticks around for a couple of days and comes with overcast skies, a low cloud deck and soaking rains, though typically less lightening. These storms make it feel like we live in the Pacific Northwest. It’s hard to do much of anything when they roll in — time to organize the gear room and catch up on chores around the house, or maybe go to the gym.
The thunder rolls
Rain usually comes with lightning, and this is the most pressing threat in the spring and summer.
The first thing I do is establish the windward direction. Then, I keep an eye on what the clouds are doing. This can be difficult if your objective is east facing, as the typical flow around here is from the west. I’m looking for cumulus development, not for cloud darkness. This is where convection happens and the static charge (aka lightning) builds up.
My biggest tip: Adjust your timing based on the development of cumulus clouds. If the clouds build around you, then abort your mission and get to lower ground. Graupel, or soft hail, is a sure sign that the convective forces are in action. Graupel is more common than hard, true hail up here. And remember: You aren’t safe from lightning until you are in your vehicle or a building with wiring.
Summer snow and wind
The past few springs I’ve seen a lot more fog. This is the trickster of the hills — recognize it, and you are rewarded with clear skies up high and the beauty of being “above the clouds.” Think you’re socked in, and you might miss a day to play.
Hopefully, the snow will fall again soon, but this phenomenon can cause all sorts of issues. Lack of visibility can shut down alpine missions. A new snow load and slab development can spike avalanche danger, making it unsafe to proceed. There have been avalanche incidents every month of the year in Colorado. We all want the powder, but it affects the choices we make.
When the wind blows — and, oh, does it blow — it can make things tough up high. Wind is one of the few forces that makes me feel out of place in the mountains. Working into a strong headwind is demoralizing. Hurricane-force winds aren’t uncommon, as anyone who lives in Breckenridge knows well. Being on exposed terrain in these events is dangerous, and getting blown off the mountain is not an option. Wind also forms slabs, which can raise the avalanche hazard.
The cold can be a boon or a bust. With our high altitude and the position of the jet stream, we can be subjected to arctic flow from time to time. That cold can cause facets to grow on powder, ramping up the danger when the next snows fall. In the spring we welcome the nightly freeze of the snow pack and are blessed with the next day’s corn harvest.
The bottom line
Building multiple options into your plan is the best way to go. Yes, you should figure out an ultimate objective, but always have at least one or two fallback plans. Keep an eye to the sky. Lightening kills every year in Colorado’s High Country, and I’ve had too many close calls along the way.
Sometimes, being lucky with the weather is as important as being good — the weather websites and forecasters are only so good. You never know until you go, but if you know the patterns you’re more likely to succeed.
Fritz Sperry is a skier, author, photographer and artist who has skied extensively in the Colorado backcountry. He’s the author of: “Making turns in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range,” and “Makingturns in Colorado’s Front Range, Vol. 1,” both available from his company, Giterdun Publishing.
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