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A Growing Sense of Snow

Mountain Life

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Everybody around here has a different sense of snow. The ranchers love it-when it comes at the right times. Deep snow in the high country is good; it means plenty of irrigation water come summer. But snow in February and March can endanger newborn calves exposed in the valleys. Snowplow drivers have a love-hate thing going for sure. No snow, and they’re out of work. Big storms mean overtime pay. But they also bring the very real danger of avalanches reaching the road and possibly even sweeping drivers and their rigs over the edge. Teenagers growing up in the San Juans haven’t matriculated until they’ve spun their first car off a snowy highway into the ditch.

The Colorado mountain towns of Ouray and Telluride, former mining camps on opposite sides of 13,000-foot ridgelines, have very different and sometimes conflicting ideas about snow. Telluride, of course, needs the stuff for skiing and for shooting brochure scenes of brick Victorians frosted white. The ski company even contracts to seed the clouds in hopes of bringing down more flakes.

Ouray, downwind eight miles to the east, opposes cloud seeding on the grounds that more snow not only increases avalanche danger, it generally means later opening dates for the jeep roads that spiderweb the high country. And jeeping is to Ouray’s summer what lift-served skiing is to Telluride’s winter.

Telluride school kids get an occasional powder day off from classes. Snow days are practically unheard of across the mountain in Ouray. School officials pride themselves on a tougher, extraction-era ethic that says snow will not get in the way of the day’s business. The romance of snow holds very little sway.

So, I was not surprised to find the kids at Ouray High School rather blank in their knowledge of and curiosity about snow. At least at first. I gave the opening talk for a three-day snow course put on by the school in concert with Western State College in Gunnison. The audience was unfailingly polite, mostly awake, but also skeptical. Then we went touring on donated cross-country gear, and a lot of these kids experienced for the first time snow as the silent heart of winter. Out in the woods, halfway up Red Mountain Pass, the snow cover was both magic carpet of glisse and a canvas on which animist art flourished. The kids learned to recognize the tracks of snowshoe hares, and even, after some argument, to determine their direction. (The much longer hind feet actually come down in front of the front paws.) One sharp-eyed skier spotted the prints of a red fox. Everywhere were hand-sized, double scars on aspen trunks where browsing elk had gnawed the bark with their incisors. We talked about the ironic/symbiotic life cycle of aspens and evergreens-how the aspens spread into sunny, exposed places only to be squeezed out by the climax species, spruce and fir, which grow up in the shade provided by aspens.

With fluffy new snow atop an old, hard crust, the footing wasn’t easy, but the kids charged ahead to places they never knew they wanted to go: a caved-in tunnel, a roofless log cabin, a creek running red with oxidized iron. Then, the trip down, with its surprise accelerations and soft landings (plus occasional moments of grace) filled the forest with laughter.

In the classroom, they read Hemingway. “George was coming down in Telemark position…his sticks hanging like some insect’s thin legs, kicking up puffs of snow as they touched the surface and finally the whole kneeling, trailing figure coming around in a beautiful right curve, crouching, the legs shot forward and back, the body leaning out against the swing, the sticks accenting the curve like points of light, all in a wild cloud of snow.”

They grappled with the physics of snow metamorphosis, how a temperature differential of 1°C over 10 cm of snowpack can drive a process that turns good-packing snowball snow into cohesionless sugar. They read history. How, in their own small county (population 3,000) 65 people, mostly mminers, have died in avalanches since 1877.

The most recent death snapped some heads awake in the lecture hall. It happened in March 1992, when these kids were in the fourth grade. Eddie Imel was buried along with his snowplow by the East Riverside slide. Many in the room remembered the long wait, through the night and into the next day, before rescue teams could dig out the body. And some of them remembered that Eddie’s daughter Kristy was in eighth grade at the time.

The third day of the course was supposed to be in the field up on Red Mountain Pass, but the snow that had begun falling on Monday hadn’t let up, and the pass was closed for avalanche control work. So, we drove a few blocks to a campground covered by 3 feet of snow. As we dug our study pits, we could hear the war-movie crack of the highway department’s 75 mm howitzer firing shells into distant avalanche start zones.

The kids were impressed with the layer-cake quality to our pit wall. We looked through magnifying lenses at new, stellar shapes from near the surface and at older, metamorphosed grains from mid-pack. We found ice layers from early-season thaws. We saw crystals bonding together, strengthening. And we looked at faceted crystals, changing, growing, losing their strength.

Finally, we performed the back-country skier’s “best friend,” the seven-step Rutschblock test, wherein a group member on skis walks onto a measured block of snow to gauge its stability. We got failure at hazard level four (with seven being the most stable); one hop with the skier’s full weight and half the snowpack came sliding down. Light bulbs were blinking on everywhere. One of my group, an avid snowboarder, asked how come our snowpack is so fragile when the guys up in Alaska are ripping down steep powder pitches with impunity?

Bingo. I could see the change in them. Lunch was waiting down at the bus, and there was still the all-important business of squaring off in boy/girl bands for an aggro snowball fight. But there was a difference now. They knew which layers in the pack wouldn’t make good snow mortars, and why. Suddenly, this cold, taken-for-granted white stuff was stranger, more powerful and more wonderful than before.

Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Montrose, Colo. Contact him at