17 January 2007: Surviving Mountain Winters

We must be crazy to weather these winters

“These are times that try men’s souls.” Thomas Paine wrote those words to instill courage in our early freedom fighters, struggling mightily to secure freedoms that spindly Americans today are willing to give up. Be that as it may, Paine might have written that line for those hardy and intrepid souls living up here during the winter months.

A good friend, who endured pushing through Georgetown with its rocket-force winds a week ago Sunday, emailed me wondering why “anyone would live there.” I responded that one needs to remember that due to the winds it is always fresh and breezy with no air pollution. Always a positive spin, she noted.

Many years ago, a gentleman, a life-long Winter Park skier, was swept off Berthoud Pass in an avalanche. In recognition of his dedication, the Park awarded him a lifetime pass. I have recalled that often, wondering when it would be my time to share a similar fate so to be rewarded with a worthwhile notable achievement award—that is, having the good fortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and surviving to tell about it. I missed my date with destiny by a couple hours on that Saturday.

For 30 years I have been traversing Berthoud, and without a doubt the reconstruction of the roadway has been an immeasurable boon. One no longer needs to crawl on the way up behind white-knuckled Texans. Now, one can blow by them in a race to the top so that he can be the umpteenth vehicle in line on the downward-side parade led by an earlier white-knuckled tourist, a crawling fuel rig, or a boss pickup trailing snowmobiles and other related pieces of equipment.

The avalanche chute on Berthoud is remarkable with its 2,000-foot drop that can plop tons of snow across the road in a heartbeat. I tend to keep my sight on the chute while passing through that stretch, particularly after substantial snowfalls such as we have had recently. You just never know.

Consideration should be given to constructing a snow shed along the avalanche-prone section such as on Wolf Creek Pass. If underpasses in that section help make life safer for wildlife, so would one for not-so-wildlife: humans. In addition to it being a relatively small financial investment to prevent potential human tragedy, it would also serve as a constant reminder that in the end, it’s Mama Nature who’s in charge.

With regard to the I-70 stretch beside Georgetown Lake, I tell friends that when they read the wind-gusts-likely warning sign, believe it—although there’s not much one can do when those crosswinds get howling other than not to get too close to high-profile vehicles. On the other hand, it can be sadistically fascinating to watch vehicles being flipped like little Matchbox cars. Of course, an alternative solution, that our chic neighbors in Vail, albeit with considerably more resources and, therefore, friends in high places, are seriously considering, would be to submerge the whole mess via a tunnel, gopher-like style.

In the end, all we can do is make our accommodations with Ma Nature by making good choices about where and how we live. So, the question for us mountain folk is whether we are intrepid like our ancestors or just plain foolish as my friend implied. Either way, we can’t doubt that living up here brings with it a sense of adventure and, as the statistics prove, a longer and healthier life span—that is, if we manage to avoid being swept up in an avalanche or blown asunder by Georgetown’s rocket-force winds.

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