Category Archives: weather

Summer’s Apex

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It could be argued that the apex of summer 2019 in Colorado occurred on July 19. It was the only day that the official high temperature at Denver International Airport exceeded 100ºF. It was the day residents of Boulder would finally tube to work and lead into a weekend with all kinds of festivals in the mountains.

We often reflect on things at beginnings and endings of different experiences. But what about that time in the middle? Sometimes during the middle period of a season, project, or experience, we need a break, a second wind or a new approach. I think of that 2:30 PM feeling many of us get during the day, the slump the main character gets about 2/3 of the way though every sports movie, or the way the dance floor at a club or wedding seems to have a lull between 10:30 and 11.

While there are many layers to life, seasons, relationships, projects, etc., my life feels like it’s at a midpoint with respect to all of them.

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At first glance it would seem that over the course of the last year I had gotten everything I’d wanted in life.

I was able to return to my original field- meteorology.

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The office I work at is full of fun people and fun events.

Also, as I had desperately wanted, my life had become more socially active and faster paced.

Somehow, I managed to get too much of what I wanted.

The severe storm season was very active. There was a lot of work to do!

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Also, a lot of hours.

The other areas in my life also picked up in pace. It felt like there was never any time to spare. My life, once again, was out of balance, just in a different way.

That is where it helps to get away, even if it is for just one night. Denver’s proximity to the mountains makes amazing one night getaways possible, and the long hot days of July makes getting up into the mountains quite refreshing.

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Despite departing late in the afternoon, we arrived at an amazingly tranquil place with outstanding views of the mountains before the sun went down.

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The weather patterns were so warm that despite the fact that our campsite was above 10,000 feet in elevation, I spent the entire night in shorts (although I did add layers after sundown).

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It was the perfect place for some quiet reflection. Sometimes it is hard for us to actually know what is happening when things get hectic and there is no time to process anything. I did not realize that a busy period, and pressure from others, had caused me to lose sight of my priorities in life. It also lead to me neglecting things that are important to me and people who I care about.

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The next morning was beautiful. The sun warmed the sky quicker than I had ever experienced in the mountains.

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When I find myself in places like this, I often like to spend time just watching trees sway in the wind. I’ve never thought about why. Maybe it is just interesting enough to keep my mind focused on the present, the here and now, as opposed to some grander concept.

July 2019, despite not being the beginning or ending of anything, ended up being a time where I got a lot of context and revelations about some of my life experiences. The prior weekend, I attended two weddings, where unexpected conversations provided me with clarity and closure related to situations that had ended years ago. Through quiet reflection, I figured out the meaning behind my current situation.

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Summer 2019 will continue to rage on. There are many more hot days to come. a few more weeks will pass before stores start advertising back to school sales and we begin to notice the sun setting earlier. However, I return home ready to adjust in a way I would have never anticipated as recently as four months ago. I’m adjusting to a life where I slow down more often, take the time to appreciate what is around me, and make time available for those that need me.

Keystone in Summertime

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It’s a place I had only seen in wintertime, covered in snow, often packed with skiiers.

Summertime shows the place in a whole new light….

Water from the top of the mountain, ether from frequent afternoon thunderstorms or residual snowmelt channels through creeks emptying into the Snake River.

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Mountain bikers are the primary users of the mountain, loading their bikes on the ski lift and riding down trails that wind through the trees.

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While the trails are different, they actually use the same rating system as is used for skiers and snowboarders in the winter.

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And, of course there are the hills, rocks and trees, a lot of which is altered or even covered up by the snow in the wintertime.

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It was a whole new perspective on a place I had been to hundreds of times, showing trails, rocks, and even small bushes I had been unaware of due to winter snowpack.

Perhaps the most breathtaking view of all was the one overlooking Dillon Reservoir at the start of what in the winter is the Schoolmarm trail.

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This overlook, at this moment in time, in an abnormally wet year where the ground appears greener then normal with greater than average residual snowpack at the top of the mountains, felt even more serene than it does in wintertime.

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And, of course, there are the other activities.

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Summertime presents an interesting challenge for ski resorts. Obviously, there are no snow sports. Resorts can either shut down for the season (as some do) or try to bring in visitors for summer activities. The ones that chose to operate in summertime often put on other kinds of events and festivals to try to attract more people.

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The music at the wine and jazz festival was quite impressive. I really enjoyed some of the acts. People pay one flat fee for unlimited wine. Unsurprisingly, much of the crowd was drunk by late afternoon.

One draw to coming up to places like Keystone at this time of year is the weather. Colorado’s most populated cities can get quite hot in the summer.

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The mountains are significantly cooler. Advertisements for summer activities at ski resorts often highlight pleasant average summertime temperatures. However, summertime weather in the mountains can also be chaotic. In complex terrain like this, thunderstorms often form in the afternoon. Where they form changes from day to day based on some fairly small scale aspects of the wind patterns in the mid levels of the atmosphere.

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Therefore, whether or not a specific location in the mountains gets a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon, although there is a scientific reason for it, can feel like luck. Adventurers generally just prepare for the possibility through some combination of monitoring the clouds and planning to summit mountains in the morning and return to tree line shortly after noon.

If recent traffic patterns on I-70 is any indication, despite the fact that the ski resorts themselves are far less crowded, Coloradans are headed up to the mountains to cool off and take part in summer activities.

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They are mostly headed to different places, sometimes out in the true wilderness of the Central Rocky Mountains.

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This is one place where it becomes undeniable that conflicts exist between corporate and human concerns. People choosing to go to different places in the summer, where they can have different experiences and often make a deeper connection with nature and themselves is a good thing for humanity overall. However, there are definitely those that stand to earn more money by getting more people to the resorts.

In theory organizations, including corporations exist to serve a purpose. I believe this is generally true in real life as well. Those that operate resorts like Keystone play a major part in encouraging people to get outdoors and seek adventure, most definitely improving human happiness. All ski resorts have a purpose, but one that is far greater in wintertime than any other time of year.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Keystone in the summer. Seeing how the place looks in the summer was also amazing. However, I will likely visit other places with what remains of the summer of 2019. The size of the crowds at Keystone Resort in mid-July, to me, don’t feel like a number that needs to be improved upon. To me, it just feels like the right size for what humanity needs at this part of the seasonal cycle of life.

 

Four Days After the Blizzard

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Well, technically in most places it wasn’t actually a blizzard. Denver and points East were  under a blizzard warning for the afternoon and evening of April 10, 2019. The wind speeds did not quite reach the technical criteria for a “blizzard”, but snow did fall and the wind did howl.

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April is perhaps the wildest, most unpredictable month. In cities throughout North America, scenes like this play out every year. Just as people are getting set up for Spring, a wild swing in temperatures, in this case from a high of 78F (26C) on Tuesday the 9th to an overnight low of 17F (-8C) after the snowstorm the next day, disorients everyone.

It can get violent too! While May is the month with the most tornadoes, April is the month with the most killer tornadoes.

With weather forecasts for specific place on a specific day generally unreliable more than about a week out, April is a hard month to set expectations for. In the mountains, this time of year is generally referred to as “mud season”, but it is not that uniform. By Sunday, four days after the snowstorm, despite the weather not being too particularly warm, places like the Buffalo Herd Overlook, at an elevation around 7600 ft. (2300m) were pretty dry. For some reason, the bison (they are often called “buffalo”, but technically are bison) roamed closer to I-70 than normal, with many motorists stopping to admire them.

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Four days after the “blizzard”, I found myself taking my new dog, Shasta, on her first hike since being adopted.

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Our group actually included a dog and a baby (9 months old), as they had previously taking a liking towards one another.

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I had previously hiked at Elk Meadows Park, almost five years ago, hiking to the top of Bergen Peak on a hazy day in July.

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That hike involved a climb of just over 2,000 feet  and a distance just over ten miles. For several reasons, today’s hike would be much shorter. Most obviously, babies are exhausting to cary and often do not have the attention span to tolerate hikes that would span around 5 hours.

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There is also the variable trail conditions.

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Sections that are both muddy and still partially covered with melting snow were quite common at elevations between 7500 and 8500 ft (2250-2600m). Heading to elevations closer to 9700 ft. (2950m), areas with deep snow would have made the hike far more challenging. Colorado had a snowy winter, particularly in late February and early March. Mid-April snowpacks exceed long-term averages throughout the state.

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The cold, snowy winter was great for Shasta to get acquainted with the new neighbors.

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But, it ended up being an abnormally sedentary period for me.

My favorite thing about Elk Meadows Park is definitely the signage. There is no getting lost here, as every trail junction is clearly labelled.

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The lower part of the park is a wide open valley. It can feel like a miniature version of areas like South Park and the San Luis Valley, relatively flat, treeless areas surrounded by mountains in all directions.

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Despite these panoramic views, the hike itself cannot really be thought of as earth shattering. When people romanticize about the Colorado outdoors, it is often about things like climbing to the top of 14ers, cycling over mountain passes, skiing, or whitewater rafting.

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However, it ended up being what I needed. There is something about being outdoors, in the presence of nature, in good company that feels human in a way that our world of cubicles, screens, stress and performance metrics doesn’t. It is so easy for all of us to get so carried away in our pursuits; trying to get a promotion, saving up or something, asserting our status, making deals and planning the future that we forget to enjoy what is right in front of us.

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Planet Earth is full of wonder, whether they be mountains, gentle streams, wildlife, waterfalls, or something simple like a group of friends having fun and dancing- showing their true humanity. The more we can stop to appreciate this, or be a part of it, the better off we all will be. After a not so great week related to my pursuits in life, I genuinely needed to just be in nature, regardless of the setting.

Like the April weather, our situations, fortunes and struggles can change at any time, and often can’t be predicted too far in advance. It has been shown that luck can be related to one’s attitude, more than just chance. However, regardless of what happens to us, our responses often matter more than the actual situation at hand. Sometimes, like the weather in April, as opposed to a detailed long-term plan, all we can do is do the best with what is right in front of us.

Opening Day At Breckenridge

Breckenridge, Colorado – November 7, 2018

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It was the first time I ever went skiing on Opening Day. It’s not that I don’t get excited about the ski season, but Opening Day at any ski resort typically does not have a lot to offer, other than saying you were there on Opening Day and often a celebration. Typically, it is one or two runs open, wherever the resorts decided to focus their snowmaking operations.

For some reason, resorts in Colorado are always in a hurry to open, most opening before Thanksgiving, some before Halloween. Resorts in places with even colder climates, like Sun Valley Idaho and Big Sky Montana, simply open on Thanksgiving. I guess in Colorado, there is pressure to open earlier, given its popularity as a ski destination and significant competition.

The problem is, some seasons start with a bang, some with a whimper. Last year, in early November, there as very little snow at most major ski resorts in Colorado. In fact, there was little to ski on well into the season, even past the New Year.

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What a difference a year makes! Whereas 2017-18 started off with a whimper, 2018-19 started off with a bang! Snowpacks at this point in the season are over three times what they were last year. Most people at the resort cannot recall a season that started off with this much snow for over a decade!

The result is starting the season off, not just with a few good runs, but with a powder day!

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Of course, even with this much snow, only one part of the resort, and only one major lift, was open. So, despite the fact that it was a Wednesday, there were still significant lift lines to contend with.

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Everything about the experience was odd, but in a good way….

It was odd to start the season, on the very first day, with over a foot of fresh powder.

It was odd to ski on a Wednesday in the middle of what feels like a work week, as opposed to as part of some kind of a weeklong trip.

It was also odd, because the makeup of the crowd at the ski resort seemed somewhat different than usual. Maybe this is a result of the specific circumstance. The fact that Breckenridge would open early, on a Wednesday, as opposed to the following weekend, was only announced at the end of the prior weekend’s larger than expected snowfall. It was also only announced the prior evening which runs would be open. The result was that the crowd tilted significantly more towards what appeared to be college students. It seemed like young men aged 19-25 made up almost half the skiers and snowboarders on the mountain that day. I saw a lot of fast paced skiing and boarding on challenging powdery trails, and heard that “woo” noise when someone hits a jump or a key area more frequently than I had ever before!

I also came into the ski day in an odd place from a personal standpoint. For a variety of reasons, I had a lot on my mind. On days like this, truly immersing oneself in an experience can be a battle inside one’s own mind. How can we stop ourselves from thinking about whatever is confusing us? The events of the prior few days? An upcoming event that we are anticipating with nervousness? Or even that existential question, about life, existence, the battle between good and evil?

What I found to be the key is noticing what is physically there, in front of me. It came in kind of an odd way. The view from the top of the ski lift is something I had seen before, many times, having held a pass to this resort for the past six season. What caught my eye, and got my mind off everything else, and onto the amazing experience I was having skiing, was the clouds!

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Specifically, while riding the ski lift, I looked up and noticed these cirrocumulus clouds, in a pattern that seemed like a series of lines, broken up just enough to display patterns on scales both large and small. They identified patterns, hidden in plain daylight, related to the transition that the Central Rocky Mountains had just undergone, from a snowy period, to a dry one. They were the balance of order and chaos we often seek in our day to day lives, and, for several minutes on a ski lift, they were all the stimulation I needed. I was content, and living in the moment.

The World’s Only Corn Palace

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It’s one of those tourist attractions that makes most people just ask why. Corn is certainly Eastern South Dakota’s primary feature. However, it is impossible to drive by this place, see billboards advertising it, or hear about it from friends and not wonder what sequence of events lead to this idea actually being pursued and funded.

In the 21st Century, it sounds like the result of some combination of boredom, drugs, alcohol and/or sleep deprivation. But, when it was first constructed, in 1892, the idea was actually quite commonplace. Despite being the “World’s Only” Corn Palace, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD was not the world’s first. The idea was actually originally pursued in Sioux City, IA. Meanwhile, nearby Plankinton, SD was pursuing something called a “Grain Palace”.

So, what was behind all of these efforts to produce what is today seems like a pretty oddball attraction? To understand it requires actually visiting the place and taking a closer look at it, both inside and out.

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While the palace is reconstructed every year with a different theme, one aspect remains the same. The images, carefully created using corn, depict life on the Great Plains. The 2018 theme, South Dakota Weather, showcased an important aspect of life on the Great Plains, dealing with variant, and sometime wild weather patterns.

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The more the artistic displays at the Corn Palace are observed, taken in, and absorbed, the more the attraction makes sense. Rappers often use their lyrics to brag about the place in which they came from. Countless young adults showcase their lives on social media, showing primarily what they are proud of. This is just another version of this. South Dakotans showcasing what they are proud of…

Their resilience in the face of wild weather.

The pioneer spirit that drove them to the West, and the dedication and hard work it took to make life work in a rugged place.

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Cooperation, the community spirit, and the feeling of connection with the natural world.

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And, most importantly, the unique manner in which they show it.

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While the idea is not new, and it comes across as odd, the Mitchell Corn Palace is actually quite refreshing. In a world where bragging is everywhere, the form it has taken here is both unique and does not require insults be thrown at anyone else. It should serve as a challenge to all of us, as we attempt to find our place in a crowded world. Is there a way that each one of us can show the world why we love ourselves and why we feel valuable? But, do so in a way that is actually interesting to those around us, unique to each and every one of us as an individual, and does not require anyone else to be diminished in the process?

 

 

Chasing Records- Spearfish, SD

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At 7:30 A.M. on January 22, 1943, the temperature in Spearfish, South Dakota was -4ºF. A mere two minutes later, the temperature had suddenly jumped to +45ºF, a swing of nearly 50 degrees in a manner of two minutes. The Great Plains is known to be a region with extremely volatile weather. However, with respect to volatility on this short of a time scale, this one event is still in the record books.

75 years later, locals, as well as those interested in weather, still talk about the event. In fact, the event is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Spearfish.

But, why so much volatility? Why here? The answer to that question lays in the geography of the region.

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Spearfish sits just north of the region known as the Black Hills. The Black Hills, although detached from the Rocky Mountains, are actually quite mountainous, with peaks rising several thousand feet above the river valleys. The manner in which peaks rise up in either direction while rock formations are carved out by small creeks is quite reminiscent of the Rockies.

Just over the border, in Northeastern Wyoming, Buttes of varying colors pop out of the more open, but still hilly landscape.

Only ten miles south of Spearfish is one of what feels like 500 different waterfalls that goes by the name “Bridal Veil Falls“.

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It is, nonetheless, breathtaking, but, what is it about this name? Did the wedding industry  somehow collaborate with the outdoor industry to try to convince tourists looking at waterfalls to be thinking about fancy weddings through this common nomenclature? Was there an early 20th Century conversation that went something like this…

“Okay, we’ll name every other waterfall ‘Bridal Veil Falls’. In exchange, you will encourage every newlywed couple to take something referred to as a ‘honeymoon’.”
“A honeymoon.. what is that?”
“A vacation that everyone is expected to take right after getting married. Think about it, both of our industries can make a ton of money off of this. We’ll get people thinking about getting married and specifically doing so with a fancy dress, likely to cost a lot of money, and then you make sure that when they wed, they are spending money on another vacation.”
“Sounds like a win-win.”

Okay, maybe it was not exactly like that, but it does seem pecular.

As far as Spearfish is concerned, traveling in the other direction, North, from town, could not be a more opposite experience.

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It is the Great Plains, and specifically the Dakotas, the way most people picture it.

It is this contrast, and specifically the North-South orientation of this contrast, in Spearfish that created this record breaking temperature change. When air travels from high elevation to low elevation, it warms. It is this exact reason that Denver, Colorado, just east of the Rocky Mountains, has frequent warm spells in the middle of the winter. In fact, January 16th is the only calendar date in which Denver’s record high is lower than 65ºF (it’s 64).

With the flat, wide-open, treeless land to the North, it could not be easier for bitter cold air straight from the North Pole to reach Spearfish. However, when warmer air does come from the South, it is further warmed by its trip over the Black Hills.

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But, why all the fuss about setting records? Specifically, why do people care so much about bizarre records? In 1943, the news about the wild temperature swings in Spearfish provided a war-weary American public with some lighter news. And while the impact was only a bunch of broken windows, people can learn from these records.

The wild temperature ride in Spearfish demonstrates how the atmosphere works. Is there something similar to be learned by the man who broke 46 toilet seats with his head in one minute? Do people who have watched that video avoid breaking their own toilet seat at home?

Or, is there something other than intellectual curiosity at work? Records like this one are interesting to people regardless of whether or not they care about the ins-and-outs of how the atmosphere works. They are just entertaining. They also provide people with one of the main things we are all searching for in the modern world; significance.

The people of Spearfish can always bring up this wild temperature swing as something that makes their town stand out among all of the towns of roughly 10,000 people out there. It is the same for the man who bloodied his head breaking toilet seats, or that one person in everyone’s social circle that did something bizarre, like stop at every Arby’s between Chicago and Saint Louis (there are 13). They have this way of making the world just a bit more interesting.

 

An Intense Hike Outside of Boulder

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Colorado has some really intense hikes! Places like these, where steep terrain features rise up out of the ground like gigantic walls, are breathtaking beyond belief, but also intimidating for hikers. Most people commonly think of places like these as being tucked away in the densely packed mountains of the Central Rockies, hours away from Denver and Boulder, or even further away, in the canyons of the West. However, there is a hike, a challenging hike, with just this kind of feature just outside of Boulder.

Bear Creek is a hike that, in some way, feels similar to hiking up a 14er (A peak whose elevation is greater than 14,000 feet). Its total elevation gain is right around 2800 feet, and the hike up Bear Peak, along with its neighboring peak, South Boulder Peak, has frequently been described as a great way to train for a 14er. It can be accessed from two points, both just outside of Boulder; the Mesa Lab and Eldorado Canyon State Park. The later has a $5 parking fee, but offers a somewhat more pleasant hike.

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From a distance, the flatirons have some amount of intimidation factor, particularly for those who are relatively inexperienced with respect to hiking. It is, after all, a fairly abrupt transition between the flatness of the Plains to the East and the rugged terrain of the mountains that are a near constant feature for miles to the West.

From Eldorado Canyon, the hike has two parts to it. The first part is relatively easy, and actually persists for a somewhat surprisingly long distance, just over two miles.

Deer run through a gently sloped field jumping in and out of the bushes. Flowers of all colors appear alongside the trail. The mountain features gradually get closer. However, this is all just a set-up, kind of a prelude. It turns out to be a warm up that lasts nearly half the hike. After that the trail runs right into Shadow Canyon, where everything changes quite abruptly.

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All of a sudden, the wide open trail and wide open spaces all collapse into densely packed trees and rocks, shade, and a tight single-file tail.

It also becomes quite steep!

Over a 1.2 mile stretch, the trail gains 1600 feet in elevation, going pretty much straight up most of the way. Only towards the top are there any switchbacks. In this case, the switchbacks actually make it easier. The slope of the trail becomes far less intense, than the stair-steps that are nearly constant for about a mile. It ends up being a good reminder of why switchbacks are commonly used on roads and trails.

There are two peaks at the top, less than a mile apart, Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak. Getting to both peaks involves a sketchy, rocky scramble.

This is only the last few hundred yards. On both peaks there is reasonable cause to be nervous. The rocks can be both slippery and unstable, and the terrain is steep in all directions.

Both peaks also offer views of both the mountains to the West and Boulder and the Plains to the East.

Bear Peak is a little bit closer to town. It may be one of the best places to overlook Boulder and the surrounding area in its entirety. One thing that can almost always be observed when looking at some of these Colorado towns from above is how many trees are planted by people in cities. Just east of the Rocky Mountains, trees do not naturally grow. The distinction between what is natural and what isn’t can be seen quite clearly. It is almost more evident than any of Boulder’s actual features, such as downtown or CU campus.

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The view of the mountains from South Boulder Peak is not all that different from Bear Creek, but still feels like the better view.

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Looking in the other direction from South Boulder Peak, as the day wares on, a reminder appears, as to unique of a year 2018 has been.

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According to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, several major fires are ravaging the state, leading to fire restrictions in all but some of the northernmost counties and even some prolonged closures on major Colorado highways.

By the start of July, the haze from these fires had become a near permanent feature of the afternoon sky. The appearance of a thick low cloud with an orange tint on an otherwise perfectly clear day serves as a reminder that no two experiences, even if in the same place at the same time of day and year, are exactly the same. The weather, just like many other aspects of our lives and culture, is always changing. There are times that are considered “normal” and other times that are considered “abnormal”. Sometimes what is considered “abnormal” beings to appear more frequently, or persists longer than expected. In these cases, it is natural to speculate, but only the future will truly settle whether what is normal is shifting, or whether the world is destined to shift back to what was previously considered normal.