A Stormy January Weekend in the Mountains

2015 is already off to an adventurous start for me.  This past weekend, the first weekend of the new year, I had the opportunity to accompany some friends on a trip to their cabin in Alma, Colorado.  Alma is the highest incorporated municipality in the United States (with permanent residents).  It is about 15 miles South of Breckenridge Ski Resort along state highway 9.  However, between Alma and Breckenridge lies a mountain pass, called Hoosier Pass, as well as the Continental Divide.

Still, visiting Breckenridge ski resort is significantly easier staying at a place like this than it is driving up there from Denver in the morning.  Not only is the distance much shorter, but there is no need to plan around the traffic patterns along I-70.  On a typical weekend day in Colorado, skiers traveling along I-70 from Denver to the area ski resorts must leave by around 6:00 A.M. to avoid significant delays.  The trek from Alma up to Breckenridge is typically only delayed by weather, and even if delayed will take significantly less time.

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Unfortunately, this past weekend turned out to be one of those weekends.  Waking up Saturday morning (after driving up from Denver Friday evening), I was amazed by the views from the cabin!  The cabin, which is located in town, and walking distance from the town’s main street, sat on the side of a hill, with forests around it in every direction.  However, I was also startled to see some low clouds appearing to our North, the very direction we needed to travel to get to Breckenridge.

The ski day was kind of a mixed bag.  With a significant amount of recent snowfall, the snow was in really good shape- neither icy nor “skied off”.  However, as the day progressed, the snow began to pick up, and so did the wind.  With temperatures in the mid to upper teens most of the day, and winds picking up to about 15 mph, the wind chills were commonly near 0!  This, along with the sensation of snow hitting me in the face at high speeds (especially on faster trails going 50 mph), made the conditions less than ideal.  In the end, we decided to do slower runs in the trees, and still ended up with a really good day of skiing.

This weekend’s weather caught us by surprise– partially.  I know it is quite dangerous to be in the mountains when a major storm hits.  And, when a major storm is on it’s way, I tend to stay home.  However, this weekend’s storm was quite minor by Colorado standards.  48 hour snowfall totals across most of the region were only a couple of inches, not enough to make me reconsider any plans.  However, an area of heavier snow happened to occur right over Breckenridge.  The map below indicates snowfall totals this weekend.  The one little “bullzeye” of snowfall exceeding 6″ is located right over Breckenridge!  So, we were impacted by the most significant part of fairly minor storm system.

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This made for a treacherous drive back over Hoosier Pass at the end of the day.  However, when we got back to Alma, it was not snowing at all.  In fact, the vehicle left at the cabin did not have any snow on it, and we did not have to shovel snow in front of the cabin.

In many parts of the country, seeing such drastic differences in weather conditions over the stretch of only 15 miles is quite a strange occurrence.  However, up here in the mountains, it is actually quite normal due to the impact the topography has on storms coming through.  Alma is considered part of South Park, a flat region of Central Colorado with elevations near 10,000 ft.  Due to it being surrounded by mountains in all directions, this region is significantly drier than other parts of the state.  The town of Breckenridge, at 9600 ft. in elevation, is actually more than twice as likely to receive significant precipitation in the winter than the South Park area, and receives more precipitation all year round.

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When selecting a home, whether it be a permanent residence, or a second home (vacation home), there are many factors to consider, one of which is location.  This weekend, with it’s kind of moderate snow event, provided a good showcase of both the advantages and disadvantages of choosing a place like Alma to have a cabin.

The major advantage seems to be how much you get for your money.  This place we stayed at is quite nice.

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It has three levels, each with it’s own sizable bedroom.  Each one has a different theme appropriate for the mountains.  The middle floor has a large kitchen, dining, and entertaining area.  And, perhaps one of the best features is the water heaters, which provide so much hot water that one can take a lengthy hot shower after a long day in the snow without having to worry about running out of hot water.  Overall, it is way more luxurious than any place I had stayed at closer to the ski resort.  I can imagine a place like this closer to one of the major ski resort being significantly more expensive.

However, the drive over Hoosier Pass in the snow was a clear demonstration of the downside of choosing a location like this.  Those with second homes in town would not have to travel too far to get to the resort, and not have to deal with icy roads and dangerous conditions.

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In addition, from this location it is also significantly less convenient to reach some of the other major ski resorts in the area, particularly Vail, Beaver Creek, and Copper Mountain.

Of course, the entire construct of this tradeoff implies a passion for skiing, because it is this passion for skiing that largely forces the pricing of these second homes in Central Colorado.  For those who prefer other activities, Alma, and the rest of South Park is quite an attractive location.

In the summertime, it is quite easy to reach tons of great hiking trails, including about a dozen “14ers” (peaks of 14,000 feet or higher).  And, a straight shot down an easy to travel highway is Buena Vista, the site of the most popular whitewater rafting river (the Arkansas River) in the country.  Finally, for those who just like solitude, the town’s population is only 270.

Due to the uncomfortable conditions, we decided not to ski again on Sunday.  Rather, we slept late, and made a leisurely journey back to Denver avoiding any traffic delays that could have built in the afternoon.  It was the prudent choice, even if we theoretically could have pushed ourselves a bit more.  Part of life in the mountains is having to accept some last minute changes in plans based on highly variable weather conditions.  So, in a way, changing up the plan for Sunday was part of an authentic mountain experience.

 

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