Snowmageddon: Thirty year storm brings excitement, extra challenges

36 inches in three days and it just keeps coming

By Aimee Eaton

The Gunnison Valley experienced widespread disruptions from a winter storm that came into the valley on Sunday, January 8. With temperatures hovering around the freezing mark and intense wind gusts, the storm brought heavy, thick snow that fell at an average of about an inch an hour through Monday evening.

Tuesday morning brought a slight lull to the storm, but also reports of school closures, plowing nightmares, transportation problems, numerous avalanches, the Crested Butte Mountain Resort shutting down and a storm total of more than 30 inches in 48 hours. With more snow in the forecast these are issues that may not disappear anytime soon.

Schools close up and down valley

On Monday, for the first time in more than 30 years, the Gunnison Watershed School District closed all district schools on account of snow (the Crested Butte Community School closed in the mid 1990s after a series of storms dropped nearly 90 inches around town). The closure decision, which impacted all schools in Gunnison and the Crested Butte Community School, came after school district staff consulted with town, city, county and state organizations about road conditions. The agencies identified several potential safety issues on town and rural bus routes so made the decision to close school, said school district superintendent Doug Tredway.

“We like to keep our doors open but our primary concern is student and staff safety,” Tredway said. “I’ve been in this district for 34 years and we have never had a full closure due to snow, but the cumulative effect of this storm along with all the snow already on the ground created a safety issue for buses and drivers. Our bus to school routes would not have worked on Monday and the snow keeps coming and coming.”

After the closure decision was made, the school principals worked with their staff to alert students and families of the cancellation.

“We try to send an email, voicemail and text to every family with a student in the district with updates about cancellations or late starts,” said Tredway. “As this winter continues we’ll be looking at the necessity of closures and we’ll work to make sure we’re making good safe decisions for our students every day.”

Gunnison schools reopened on time on Tuesday and the Crested Butte Community School opened an hour late.

Crested Butte and Gunnison County snow challenges local government services

With snow piling up at record rates, one of the single largest issues facing the town of Crested Butte is plowing and snow storage, said Rodney Due, director of Public Works for the town.

“Crews have been working around the clock since Christmas,” Due said, adding that he’s put together two snow crews: a primary crew that runs the large plows at night and a secondary crew made up of any and all staff from the Public Works and Park and Recreation departments who work during the day.

“The primary crew usually runs the plows from between midnight and 8 a.m. but can stay on the road until 10 a.m. during late snow events,” said Due. “The secondary crew works during the day to haul snow out of town, creating room for snow being pushed at night. They’ll also widen streets as necessary.”

The nonstop plowing and snow removal work underlines the importance of the winter parking regulations and restrictions. Because crews are hauling snow, widening streets and preparing for the next storm both during current storms and for days after an active snow event the restrictions are always in play and always enforced.

“The town does not want to ticket or tow any vehicles, but we must if they are in the way of snow management activities between 1 a.m. and 10 a.m. on the assigned days for each side of the street,” said Due.

In addition to following the signed parking restrictions, the town is hoping that motorists can give plow drivers a break by parking as close to the snow bank as possible on the designated side of the street.

“This allows more room for our plows to get by at night,” said Due. “When people leave three feet between the bank and their vehicle it does not leave much room for the plow to get by, especially as our streets get narrower.”

The narrow streets and tight conditions in town are also having an impact on relationships as neighbors and visitors all face complications from the snow. Town residents are getting creative with their shoveling and parking. Maintenance workers are putting in dangerous hours clearing roofs and walkways, and just about everyone is dealing with slippery sidewalks, wet gear, and longer transit times.

“Patience is wearing thin around town,” said Crested Butte deputy marshal Peter Daniels. “We hope everyone can remember that we’re all in the same boat dealing with the burdens of the storms. About everything that you would expect to be happening in conditions like this is happening, and it’s happening to all of us.”

Along with the expected situations of motorists getting stuck and an uptick in traffic and parking violations, the marshal’s office reports incidents of numerous roofs sliding, older structures collapsing, driveways being blocked and residents throwing their shoveled snow in the streets.

“The general rule is that your snow shouldn’t leave your property,” said Daniels. “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.”

Down valley, the focus is also on snow removal and the continuation of public safety services. In order to keep staff as safe as possible and minimize people having to travel on roads, county offices were closed Monday, said Gunnison County manager Matthew Birnie.

A multi-agency meeting held early in the week and coordinated by the County Office of Emergency Management found that many agencies are contending with equipment problems, difficulty getting replacement parts and limited snow storage.

“There’s a lot of coordination happening so that the school buses can run safely and the RTA may resume normal operations,” said Birnie.

Other storm-impacted areas in the county include the airport and the recycling center.

“The airport has struggled to keep up with snow removal, but most flights have not been able to make it because of visibility limitations,” said Birnie. “The Gunnison recycling center is unable to take drop-offs as they are working on clearing snow so they can resume normal operations.”

Transit: Getting around—or not

Along with school closures, Monday also saw the temporary cessation of the Gunnison Valley Transportation Authority (RTA) buses on their routes between Crested Butte and Gunnison. According to RTA executive director Scott Truex, service was suspended after the four drivers on the morning schedule unanimously declared the roads unsafe due to visibility and poor driving conditions. Service resumed with the 12:25 p.m. bus on Monday afternoon but many buses ran late with long, slow rides through Tuesday.

“Safety is the most important factor,” said Truex of the RTA’s decision to suspend or change service. “We’re working with the county and other entities in the valley to provide the best service we can while maintaining safety for the public.”

In town, the Mountain Express buses continued to run, but several buses were late and there were closures on the condo loops. As of Tuesday morning, the Three Seasons bus was turning around at the Outrun Stop and all other stops on the route were cancelled. In addition the Timberline, Paradise Condos and Treasury Point stops were closed. Again, safety was cited as the top priority, and the reason for the closures.

“Only one bus has gotten stuck and that’s because another driver was spinning out in front of it,” said Mountain Express transit manager Chris Larsen. “Our drivers have been doing a fantastic job in tough conditions and we can’t thank them enough for getting riders safely where they need to go.”

Avalanche concern isn’t limited to the backcountry

The big issue with the January 8 storm is not so much the amount of snow, but the amount of moisture the snow holds—a lot. In general, winter storms in the Upper Valley, around Irwin and around Schofield Pass, come in cold with light low-density snow, the kind of snow that you can move with a broom rather than a shovel. This storm, however, has been warm and wet, with unusually dense snow.

According to the Crested Butte Avalanche Center, Crested Butte Mountain Resort received 30 inches of heavy, wet snow between Sunday and Tuesday mornings. That’s an equivalent of 2.5 inches of water. Schofield Pass received twice that amount. Those are numbers and conditions that translate to increases in natural and skier-triggered avalanches, roof slides, and overall more dangerous conditions in, close to, and outside of town.

“We’re currently at the second-largest storm we’ve ever seen at Schofield Pass since the recording station was put in in 1985 and we’re rapidly approaching the largest,” said Zach Guy, the director and lead forecaster for the avalanche center. “Monday night had two significant and destructive avalanche paths go across Kebler, a frequent travel route for backcountry travelers and people commuting back and forth to Irwin. More than eight feet of debris was left on the road.”

On Tuesday the avalanche center rated avalanche danger in the region as high, meaning avalanches large enough to bury a car, destroy a wood-framed house and break trees. On average, this size avalanche has the potential to run more than half a mile, and can occur both naturally and when triggered by humans.

“There is a real danger of catastrophic avalanches occurring right now,” said Guy. “We’re advising people to avoid traveling in avalanche terrain and to be aware of possible avalanche terrain that may be above them. Some of these slide paths can reach into the valley bottoms. That means it’s not a good idea to go have a picnic below Redwell Basin.”

According to Guy, the extent of avalanche activity associated with this storm cannot be determined until the storm clears; however, the expectation is that it will be extensive.

On Wednesday, the danger went up to extreme, something Guy said had not happened in the six years he’d been forecasting for the avalanche center.

“There is serious potential for D4 avalanches—avalanches that could bury trucks and railway cars, knock down buildings, and destroy large sections of forest,” said Guy. “These are the 20-year slides that change landscapes.”

In town, many roofs have already slid, and snow is continuing to cause dangerous conditions.

“It keeps getting more and more exciting out there,” said Guy. “Now is a good time to practice being aware of your surroundings and managing risk.”

That sounds like good advice, whether it means cleaning off the roof, staying off the road or avoiding the backcountry.

Putting this storm and this winter in context

While it may seem like this winter is shaping up to be well above the average, it’s more that these recent storms and especially the January 8 storm are exceptional.

The town of Crested Butte began keeping record of snowfall in 1962. Since that time the largest annual snowfall came in the winter of 1977-78 when 381 inches of snow were recorded to have fallen. By this date in that historic year, 365 inches had fallen. So far in the 2016-17 winter 155 inches of snow have been recorded, which is well below the 55-year-average of 202 inches. But remember it’s only January.

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