Snow storm creates havoc—and rejoicing

“Crews are working their tails off…”

[ By Mark Reaman, Kendra Walker and Katherine Nettles ]

While winter in Crested Butte started late with spring conditions flowing into December, when it finally started, it started with a fury. A two-day 30-inch storm started it off two weeks ago and currently the north end of the valley is sitting under a snow stream that has dropped an additional 60 inches in five days with another 40 inches forecast into the coming weekend. While the resort skiing has been fantastic, the backcountry is dangerous due to avalanche danger and the municipalities are trying to mitigate the constant impacts of a persistent and deep storm.

Up at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, nearly six feet of fresh snow blanketed the mountain this past week. Despite the steady dumping, some terrain we’re used to seeing open by now, especially with the current snow totals, has still not opened.

According to CBMR and Park City senior manager of communications Jess Miller, warm temperatures and lack of snowfall throughout November and early December impacted CBMR’s efforts to open these areas of terrain, including International and the East River Lift, earlier in the season. Staff shortages have also had an impact.

“While recent December storms have been bountiful, temperatures were often too warm to make quality snow in the early-season, presenting a challenge for our snowmakers and mountain operations teams,” said Miller. “We are taking every advantage of this recent snowfall and our patrollers are in action working hard to conduct avalanche control work across the resort so we can all safely enjoy new areas of terrain. This process takes time and we’re grateful to all of our resort teams for their efforts.”

East River did open on Wednesday, adding 185 acres and 11 trails to the mountain’s open terrain. Prospect Lift also opened on Tuesday. However, due to staff shortages a couple other lifts were closed this week.

“With the recent snowfall, all of our mountain teams have been hard at work preparing new areas of terrain for opening. Avalanche control work has been a major focus this week and we’re committed to safely opening as much new terrain as we can, as quickly as possible,” said Miller. “We’ll continue to open up new trails daily as it is safe to do so.”

CBMR is also not exempt from the worker shortages in the valley, which was apparent Wednesday when the Teocalli and West Wall lifts were closed. “Like others in the travel and leisure industry, Crested Butte Mountain Resort is contending with staffing shortages, creating challenges for certain departments,” said Miller. “Due to this, the Teocalli and West Wall lifts are temporarily closed. We are focusing our efforts where we can to maximize the guest experience and will update our website once these lifts reopen.”

Streets and roads feeling the brunt
For the Town of Mt. Crested Butte, snow removal and plowing crews are working nonstop, starting at 4 a.m. each day to remove snow from all town-owned roads and sidewalks (Highway 135 is plowed by the county).

“Our crews are working around the clock right now to get snow removed,” said Mt. Crested Butte communications and marketing officer Marisa Maudsley. “Our guys are working a lot for sure, some having worked eight days straight and putting in some overtime. They probably won’t get a break until the storm is done.”

Overall, Mt. CB is equipped to handle the storm, said Maudsley. “We are fully staffed and we have all the equipment that we do need for the town. From our perspective it is working well as far as snow removal.”

Maudsley also reminds folks who are traveling from out of town that Mt. Crested Butte doesn’t allow parking on the street, or overnight parking in the town lots. “Parking can be problematic when we get this much snow,” she said. “We just ask people to be patient with the snow removal, as our guys are trying to get everything done as quickly as they can.”

CBMR also works on snow removal at the base area, and has been doing its best to manage the steady flow. “All the new snow is incredible, however it does present some challenges,” said Miller. “We’ve had close to 6 feet of snow in less than a week and our teams are out throughout the day and night working hard to keep up with the snow removal and store it appropriately. This has been a consistent process daily and with snow totals rising, we know that everyone at this end of the valley, and throughout town, is working hard to manage the snow swiftly and safely.”

Maudsley also asks that folks be proactive about removing snow around their personal property and to be careful when walking near roof overhangs. “We want people to be aware of the surrounding snow removal happenings to ensure everyone’s safety as well.”

In Crested Butte crews are also working overtime to manage the snow. Streets are being plowed not just at night but sometimes during the day as the piles have to be moved given there are fewer places around town to store snow these days. Crested Butte has basically been operating with a five-man snow removal crew since Christmas Eve and they have been working 12-14 hour shifts. Starting this week, the public works department has been running crews day and night and using private contractors to help move snow.

“Our crews are working their tails off to clear snow on streets, sidewalks and parking areas,” said Crested Butte finance director Rob Zillioux. “Cars need to be parked on the correct side of the street at night when most of the plowing takes place otherwise it will be towed. That’s the only way to control the streets. Given our lack of snow storage in town, we are having to haul many, many dump truck loads to the gravel pit.”

As of Wednesday, the town had hauled 618 loads to the gravel pit snow storage area. Last year a total of 1,604 truckloads were taken there. “We expect to average 200 hauls a day for the next several weeks to widen roads and clear out temporary snow storage areas,” Zillioux said. “If the snow continues, this timeframe will change.”

Zillioux said the north side of Elk Avenue is closed to parking for the time being so that the buses can run and to allow for two-way traffic. He said that the streets crew is working as fast as possible to clear Elk, but with the constant snowfall there is no estimated time of when that would be. He also said that under the town’s winter snow plan, the snowbanks are meant to remain on Elk through the New Year holiday. “Everyone is jumping in to manage the situation as this is an old-school storm,” Zillioux said. “We had to rally a few non-park department employees to clear and prep the ice rink which opened Tuesday.”

Zillioux reminded residents not to push snow from their private property onto public streets. He also asked the public to be patient given the circumstances and understand that everyone is doing their best to keep town operating during somewhat trying circumstances.
Gunnison County Public Works has been working throughout the storm to maintain roads, and dealing with the challenge of plowing around cars. According to public works director Marlene Crosby, “The crews in the north end of the valley and in Somerset and Marble have put in a lot of hours moving snow the last week. They are doing well, but anxious for a day to get the snow on their routes pushed back and cleaned up for the next storm cycle.

“The ongoing issue is always parked cars,” said Crosby. “Either parked in the road, or people not pulling their car into their driveway far enough to let the plow get by. We know that we are leaving large berms in driveways, but we are working hard to keep the main roads open, and don’t have the equipment or staff to clean any driveways during a storm.”

Keeping perspective, however, Crosby sums up that the snow is welcome, whether for skiing and riding or for the persistent drought conditions of 2021.

“We went into the winter knowing how badly our environment needs the snow, so we will just keep on plowing!” she said.

Gunnison County sheriff John Gallowich said his department has also fielded many calls for help and vehicular issues. “The effects of the storm have resulted in an increase in calls regarding traffic accidents, Search and Rescues that did not require much of a response, numerous parking issues, towed vehicles, snow plow access to roads and people calling due to them being snowed in,” said Gallowich. “When a storm of this nature arrives, it is not uncommon that we experience an increase in calls for service.”

Public transit and parking issues
On the public transit front, Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) executive director Scott Truex said the snow is pushing a lot of people onto the buses travelling between Gunnison and Mt. Crested Butte. There have been times during the storm that the RTA buses could not reach the ski area to pick up passengers. “We’ve had three or four different times during the storm cycle where we were unable to run up the hill,” explained Truex. “The Mountain Express has been a great help carrying people to and from the Four-way. For the most part, passengers have understood the situation and have been very respectful. They can continue to help by wearing masks and having patience.”

Mountain Express managing director Jeremy Herzog agreed there have been some challenges during the storm given the volume of people wanting to get out and enjoy the snow. “We are seeing significant adoption of public transit this holiday season,” Herzog said. “But there is also a good bit of road traffic that is preventing our system from operating at its full efficiency since buses get stuck in traffic too. People can help the traffic situation by choosing public transit over their individual vehicles.”

Given the narrowing of Elk Avenue due to the plowed snow taking up space in the street, Herzog said the Mountain Express could not use the main thoroughfare for about eight hours on Monday, December 27. Then on Tuesday morning he said, “the traffic uphill to CBMR extended as far south as the cemetery during the morning ski rush. That brought our town shuttle route to a standstill. Between the RTA route modification and traffic issues on 135, people did have to wait more than the usual 15 minutes to board the next bus at the Four-way Stop.”

Because CBMR officials let Mountain Express know ahead of time that the period between December 20 and January 2 would be busy, the transit agency expanded its planned capacity as much as it could by filling extra driving shifts. “Our patrons have been very respectful and understanding,” concluded Herzog. “I was personally helping to manage the downhill crowds from Mountaineer Square yesterday (Monday), and the joy in the air was palpable! It really helps if people choose to take the bus rather than drive their own vehicle and we ask them to please wear a mask.”

Mt. Crested Butte police officers helped alleviate the issues with the Tuesday morning traffic jam. Department spokesperson Maddie Thomas said overall, the winter weather is definitely causing a few hiccups. “The major issues we are dealing with are traffic and parking,” she explained. “On Tuesday morning the CBMR paid parking as well as both free lots filled up resulting in a traffic jam on Gothic Road. To ease some of the congestion police officers got permission to use the Crested Butte Community School parking lot for overflow parking. At this time there have been several minor accidents reported.

“As the storm cycle continues, we ask for people to be prepared for slower travel times,” Thomas continued. “Be respectful of snow plows and snow removal crews as they work hard to clear our streets and walkways.”

While it is too early to tell how much this storm will impact our reservoirs next spring, one thing we all know is that it certainly won’t hurt. The Gunnison River Basin now is recording snowfall for late December at 119-percent of average.

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