Thursday, May 13, 2021

May snow

Life in Colorado feels like it's simultaneously always winter and never winter. Sometimes I'll scramble to the top of South Boulder Peak wearing a T-shirt in December. January is often one of my "fastest" months because it's dry and cool and the weather forecasts are reliable enough that I can get away with carrying almost nothing. February often brings the first subzero spells, but sometimes those come in October. March, April, and May have all of the snow — that is, until May shifts into Hail of Destruction — one of 12 official seasons in Colorado. By July, nearly every long bike ride requires a waterproof bag full of winter gear in case I need to wait out a thunderstorm while huddling beneath a rock. The 2020-2021 snowfall season spanned from September 8 to (at least) May 11, but within this eight-month "winter" was one of the state's worst fire summers on record. Colorado weather may be bipolar, but it's never uninteresting. 

First Summer burned through the region in early April. May 1 brought Second Summer ... summer, in my book, is any day that the temperature spikes above 80 degrees. My mom and dad drove out from Salt Lake City for a brief weekend visit — now that everyone is fully vaccinated, we're starting to make up for the missed holidays of 2020. Saturday was May Day and called for a high of 84 degrees. Beat was eager to show my Dad his favorite local routes, starting with a loop to Twin Sister's Peak and along Gross Reservoir. Twin Sisters was an enjoyable jaunt with a slippery slush scramble to reach the summit.

Then we had to pick our way along the reservoir, which is very low right now. (We can't figure out why. South Boulder Creek just below the dam is raging, so they are releasing a lot of water.) The traverse is this off-camber slope of loose boulders and looser sand, slipping and scrambling around rock outcroppings to reach the tick-infested upper shoreline. Dad was a good sport about this mess of a "hike." I tend to be less enthusiastic about Beat's off-trail routes, but I will concede it was a fun day out. It was also funny to see how surly Beat became when we returned to an established trail at Walker Ranch and had to — gasp — hike near other people. 

Sunday's weather forecast was much more volatile, calling for afternoon thunderstorms shifting to snow overnight. My mom really wanted to hike to Bear Peak, the spot where Beat and I were married in September. Mom has been dealing with a shoulder injury that has prevented her from being as active as usual and often has issues with altitude, so I blocked out two hours for the three-mile trek. I proposed leaving at 9 a.m. to ensure we'd be back by 11 a.m. ... storms were forecast to arrive between 2 and 3 p.m. Beat and Dad took off for another of Beat's off-trail adventures. Mom and I drove to the trailhead and hit the trail at 9:15 a.m. She started out a bit fast, and we made it just over a mile when she said she was feeling faint. We took a couple of breaks. We were within a quarter-mile and about 400 vertical feet of the summit when she requested a longer rest. The sky still looked like this — mostly clear with distant dark clouds along the horizon. It was just after 10 a.m. 

This last pitch of the west ridge is very steep, and even the long break didn't help Mom feel much better. She was determined to make it, though. I kept looking back at the sky that was rapidly darkening to the west. We took a few more steps and more rests. I set a turn-around time of 10:30. But by 10:15, I looked back to see two flashes of lightning peel through an inky purple horizon. This is not an exaggeration — the sky went from the blue in the previous photo to this — effectively the same vantage point — in just 15 minutes. In the summertime, I've seen afternoon thunderstorms move in fast, but it caught me completely off guard on Sunday — so early in the season, and in the morning. I reluctantly told Mom we needed to turn around — we just wouldn't have time to make the summit.

She wanted me to connect with Dad and Beat in case they were waiting for us on Bear Peak. So I sprinted the final 400-foot climb in such a hurry that my lungs were burning and I felt dizzy myself by the time I reached the summit. Dad and Beat weren't there. When I turned around, the storm was right on top of us. It was already too late. For nearly a mile, the trail traversed this exposed ridge, an old burn area with no shelter. Bear Peak is objectively one of the worst places to be when a thunderstorm hits Boulder. Purple Mammatus clouds billowed overhead, building into a powerful hailstorm. I hadn't even caught my breath from the climb when I broke into a downhill sprint. My brain was sending "run for your life" signals that enable me to override my fear of tripping and falling. I skipped down the stair-like rocks at a breathtaking pace — it would have been exhilarating if it wasn't so terrifying.  

When I met back up with Mom, she had already donned her coat. I was grateful to see she had a heavy raincoat — some sort of wax-coated material, it was long and solid and would stand up a lot better to what was coming than the three-ounce wind jacket that I was carrying. We hiked about 500 yards before hail began to pelt us in force. Flashes of lightning streaked through the sky. I'd count the seconds until thunder — five. Four. We reached one of the final clusters of standing dead trees, where I stopped to put on my jacket. Mom had a long-sleeve cotton hoodie in her amazing grab bag — seriously, how lucky am I that Mom was so prepared? When we had our wedding up here, I carried a backpack with ten headlamps and ten puffies just in case anyone got cold. But when it mattered, it was my mom saving my skin. In this case, quite literally. The extra material from the hoodie helped buffer the stinging hail, even though I was already soaked. I paused under the trees a little longer, contemplating if we should try to wait out the storm. But the skeleton forest offered no protection from lightning. Nothing up here could. Our best bet was to keep moving. 

Mom held it together well. Hail accumulated on the ground and turned an already tricky trail into an icy slip-and-slide. I'm more prone to panic and probably would have sprinted until I ended up splat on my face, but Mom was adamant about maintaining a slower pace and not falling. I showed her how to side-step to improve traction. As I was doing this, Dad and Beat caught up from behind. Both of them were very cold, and Dad's hands weren't working well anymore. But it seemed like the worst was behind us. The seconds between lightning flashes and thunder were widening. The hail was tapering into heavy rain. 

Beat and I started to explain the lightning stance — the position to take when a strike seems imminent. Crouch down, place your hands over your ears, raise your heels so only the balls of your feet have contact with the ground, and press your heels together so if lightning hits the ground, it will likely pass through one foot and exit out the other. Also, toss any conductors like trekking poles away. Before we went through these steps, we told Dad that signs of an imminent lightning strike were hairs standing on end, tingling skin, "or buzzing and popping from metallic things like your jacket zipper."

Seconds after we mentioned the step about tossing away trekking poles, Dad threw his poles to the ground and sputtered in a strange, fear-stricken tone, "Like this?" Beat and I looked back, confused for a few seconds, and then Dad broke out into uproarious laughter. It took him a few more seconds to stop laughing while confusion reigned. Dad caught his breath and told us that just as we finished our speech, his GPS watch buzzed to indicate a completed mile. But when he felt buzzing, he thought it was electricity in the air.

The mood continued to lighten, but it was clear we were all shaken by the storm. One of my neighbors, a 30-plus-year resident of the area, said she'd never witnessed a storm come on so fast in our neighborhood. People down in Boulder were also caught out by the rapid-fire hail. It was a crazy fluke of a spring storm, but I still felt contrite for putting my mother through this. "I should know Colorado better by now." 

She didn't mind. "It was an adventure."

The following morning, we woke up to three inches of snow. As my parents packed up their Toyota Camry to head home to Salt Lake, I confirmed that there was a passenger vehicle traction law on I-70 and they'd have to head north to Wyoming ... by far not their preferred route. I could almost see a "WTF" caption beneath the scene as Dad scraped ice off his windshield. To recap, my parents arrived on Friday evening to seasonal (60s) spring sunshine. On Saturday the heat soared into the mid-80s, Sunday brought violent thunderstorms, and by Monday there was snow. 

Four days. Four seasons. "It's the full Colorado experience," I offered. 

The snow hung on through Tuesday morning, offering lovely views over coffee.

I go for the same run almost every Tuesday, since I'm always on deadline and usually only have an hour to spare. This Tuesday run was especially enjoyable, although the road was so slick with mud that I sometimes stomped through the snow chunks off to the side. 

By Thursday it was warm again. The snow was gone and creeks were raging. 

On Friday it was really warm, once again calling for temperatures in the 80s. A couple of months ago, in an action I effectively don't remember, I signed up for an overnight camp spot in Rocky Mountain National Park on May 7. When I received the reminder e-mail, I pieced together that the national park opened up backcountry campsite registration, and by the time I looked, an alarming number of days had filled up. But when I checked early-season dates, I found the Boulderfield open on this particular Friday night. Boulderfield is a high-altitude (12,000 feet) alpine site, typically used by folks climbing Longs Peak. I thought, "How awesome would it be to snow camp up there? That will probably still be doable on May 7." And there is still a lot of snow cover in RMNP, but temperatures were not predicted to drop below freezing — even at 12,000 feet — for several nights in a row. Imagining the slush slog, punching all the way through thigh-deep rotten snow, was enough to deter me from this trip. Planning backpacking trips so far in advance is pretty dumb. It annoys me that the permit system forces your hand — and makes you pay $30 for the privilege of likely canceling a trip due to weather or conditions. (But at least I can get an overnight permit from Rocky Mountain National Park. I have had no luck trying to work with the esoteric system in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, which still conducts requests over the phone.) 

I consoled myself with a 10-hour bike ride through the mud and flowing streams on the back roads of Boulder County. I brought no extra layers and a lot of water because I thought it would be hot, but it was surprisingly cloudy and cool. Damn it. Shoulda gone to Rocky. (Actually, the west wind was fierce and the sky looked like it was brewing thunder all day, so I was glad to not be parked at 12,000 feet.)

The weather remained unsettled through the weekend when I joined Beat for the last 10 miles of his 50K training run. He's running a hundred-miler in Southern Colorado on June 4 — his first race since the start of the pandemic. I have a few tentative summer ambitions. First on this list is Summer Bear, a 260-mile self-supported bike adventure in Steamboat Springs in early July. (I raced a 200-mile version in 2019. It's harder than advertised.) But it's still hard to wrap my head around "racing." So much of the past 14 months has been about survival and waiting and coping. The optimistic, future-forward thinking involved with planning and training for a race just doesn't compute. 

When it's springtime in Colorado, the only certainty is rapid change. And sure enough, on May 10 we woke up to renewed snow! Sad daffodils are one of my favorite images for such an occasion: the bright, cheery yellows of springtime bowing against a wash of wintry grays.

My boring ol' Tuesday run was again more lively than usual. The route was pure mud and slush and I was boot-skiing all over the place. 

It sure was pretty, though. 

Most of the snow was gone by Tuesday evening. I was shuttling dishes into the kitchen after dinner when I was startled by the presence of a massive brown bulk of an animal standing no more than six feet away from the house. He swung around and I realized it was a big bull moose. I called Beat over and we stood in the kitchen for nearly a half-hour, watching the moose browse the newly budded greens from our bushes before plopping down to nap and digest. It was a lot of fun to watch a large wild animal do his thing at such close range from the safety of the kitchen. He was still around on Wednesday morning, but I haven't seen him since.

Rocky Mountain National Park received a reported 14-18 inches of new snow in the May 10-11 storm. I thought that sounded like a recipe for awesome snowshoeing conditions — honestly, I can't really say why the same brain that talks me out of warm slushy conditions thinks a foot of heavy spring powder sounds fun. I talked Beat into taking a day off to hike in Wild Basin, but after scrolling through what little information we could find about current avalanche conditions, and finding a few iffy spots on the CalTopo map, we decided that valley was too risky. We were going to compromise with a trip up low-angle Niwot Ridge, but as soon as we pulled into the trailhead we both balked at the thought of slogging through the same ol'. Suddenly we found ourselves continuing up to Brainard Lake. Plan C, which wasn't a plan until we were there, was Mount Audubon — also low-angle terrain, but so high, and so far away, and so blasted by fearsome wind all of the time. 

From the winter trailhead at Brainard Lake, we started up the unplowed road. Skiers had broken a trail for the first two miles, but the snow was so soft that even the packed surface didn't provide much support. After that, we were on our own for the next 4.5 miles and 2,500 feet of climbing. I know; that doesn't sound like much. But imagine that distance through a foot of fresh snow, heavy with springtime moisture, rapidly melting in the 40-degree sunshine. Then you climb above treeline, where the temperature dips below freezing and a 25-40 mph wind nearly whips you off your feet. Every step is a battle. Beat took this photo of me that I think depicts the struggle well:

"At least there's no lightning," was one of the thoughts that I had. After that, I was too bonked for coherent thought. 

It took four hours of steady, strenuous snowshoeing to reach the saddle about 600 feet below the 13,200-foot summit. By then the wind was so strong that it likely would have taken another hour to reach the peak — mostly crawling on all fours, picking out solid footing in a minefield of hollow spindrift and boulders. We decided to call it at the saddle. 

There are still gorgeous views up there, looking west across the Continental Divide at 12,600 feet. 

And north toward Longs Peak and RMNP.

Any day where I get to put on all of these layers and battle a fearsome chill is a good day. All the better if it's May 12. I think I'm just about braced and ready for summer. Almost. 


  1. I love how you put it, always winter and never winter (well, this past winter never wouldn't be the word I'd use). And boy, that is a big boy on a photo!

  2. Until you guys moved to Boulder, I had no idea how bipolar spring was in Colorado! And that's pretty cool that a moose dined and slept in your yard! Almost like being in Alaska. . .

  3. I am way too nervous about lightning to live there! One of the reasons I haven't hiked the Colorado trail.


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