Category Archives: storms

Memorial Day Tornados in Eastern Colorado

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2018 has not been an active year for tornados. With May, the most active month for tornados nearly complete, only 416 tornados have been reported.

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This is, by any scientific measure, over 35% lower than the long-term average, and according to the Storm Prediction Center, in the bottom quartile for tornado activity.

This Memorial Day storm chase almost came as a surprise. First of all, I typically travel Memorial Day Weekend, as does a lot of people. Also, with the season being as inactive as it has been, there had been plenty of days throughout May where forecast models looked promising for a good storm chase several days to a week ahead of time, only for the atmospheric setup to never materalize.

While some aspects of weather forecasting have become quite accurate, forecasting weather beyond a few days, and forecasting weather phenomenon on a small spatial scale remains a challenge. Thus, those that long to see what is perhaps nature’s most violent storm, tornados, can do one of two things. They can set aside a period of time, typically sometime either in May or early June to go out and look for storms.

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Several companies offer this service, a set 7 to 10 day chase in vans like these ones. However, even in May, there is no guarantee that any kind of active thunderstorms will be happening, let alone tornados. Those that have ever chased in this manner end up becoming familiar with all sorts of oddball attractions in the Great Plains!

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There are also those that keep an eye on weather outlooks, deciding to go when the setup looks good. This requires some often last minute decision making, and sometimes chaining plans. This is what I did on Memorial Day. A day that started out slowly, with brunch in Cherry Creek, quickly transitioned to traveling due east out of Denver, straight into the storm.

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Still, even if this tactic guarantees that there will be activity, it does not guarantee that there will be tornadoes. There is still some element of luck to it.

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Near the tiny town of Cope, Colorado, the sky had an interesting orange hue to it with what appeared to be a funnel cloud. This can actually happen quite frequently without an actual tornado being spotted.

At that point in time, around 4:30 P.M., we made two decisions that would put us in the right position to view the tornados. First, we decided to get to the East side of the storms before they became big. Second, we decided, due to Eastern Colorado’s sometimes limited road network, to actually use dirt roads, something that can, at times, be dangerous in the case of a flood.

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The first tornado, Southwest of Cope, we saw kind of in the distance.

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We traveled south, along a dirt road, to get a closer view of it, however, we eventually saw it dissipate.

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Still, the entire time, cloud formations indicated a strong low-level rotation, conditions necessary for tornado development. There was even a “landspout” and several dust devils between the storms.

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Before long, two new tornados were spinning up, just a bit to the South and East of where we had seen the first one.

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The strange thing about these storms was that they were first visible on the ground, with clouds of debris extending outward from both emerging funnels.

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Watching them develop proved quite remarkable. First the funnels showed, then we actually got to see the darker clouds of debris around the funnel fill in from the ground up, forming two side-by-side fully mature tornados.

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The funnels were on the ground for about half an hour.

They gradually evolved, taking on different forms, giving way to yet another tornado, a bit further South and East, near a tiny town called Vona, CO.

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As a person with many interests, I only end up storm chasing several days per year. In the past several years, this was by far the most successful chase day. Even for the most knowledgable chasers, just seeing a tornado constitutes a successful day. Seeing four of them, as well as being able to watch tornados form is nothing short of amazing!

I am also always glad to see when tornados are not actually impacting people where they live. One thing I notice is that storm chasing continues to become more and more popular with time.

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There were several instances where we encountered large groups of people, just like this one, looking at and taking pictures of tornadoes. This is all good, but I do concern myself with how the people who live in these areas perceive this activity. We storm chasers should never be delighting in the destruction of anyone’s home or town, and I am concerned that the perception as such could lead to some resentment among the people who live in tornado prone areas, particularly the Great Plains, which far Eastern Colorado is part of.

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Not only was it one of the most successful chases of my life, but it also was quite possibly the most efficient chase I have ever been a part of. It started after what turned out to be a 90 minute brunch, and that evening I was back in Denver seeing a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater.

The perfect storm chase, like the perfect setup when it comes to things like jobs, relationships, communities and homes, results from the intersection of good decisions and good luck. The former can be controlled. The later cannot. Just as I have been on many other storm chases where my group made all the right decisions but still did not see any tornados, the same can happen in all of our pursuits. All we can do is continue to go out there, make the right decisions, execute properly, knowing that the luck will eventually materialize even if it takes several more tries.

 

Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness: Day 2

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Before moving to Colorado, I experienced seasons in a completely different way.  While there would be some anomalies, for the most part, winter was winter and summer was summer.  Snow was something I experienced starting in November, through the winter, probably one last time in early April, and then not again for 6-9 months.  Likewise, heat would be primarily confined to the summer months.  In other words, I experienced being cold and being warm in two separate parts of the year.  The experience would generally only mix during the in between seasons; mid-spring and mid-fall.

In Colorado it’s all different.  In Denver I’ve seen temperatures reach the lower 70s (23 C) in the middle of February.  At higher elevations snow can fall nearly year round, and there are places where snowpack persists well into the summer.

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Saturday morning, the start of my second day in the Weminuche Wilderness, was a cold one.  The chill had awoken me at 3:00 in the morning, when I reached for my warm hat and for the zipper to zip my sleeping bag all the way shut.  At roughly 6:30 I woke up for good, and crawled out of the tent to find ice on the fly!  Frost was found on many of the items we left outside, including this bear cannister.

It warmed up fairly quickly at the campsite making me wonder why I did not simply stay inside the tent for another hour.  All the weather forecasts we had looked at prior to this backpacking trip had indicated that a wet period was coming to a slow end, and that each day would get progressively drier (lower probability of rain).  Yet, in the morning I saw something that would indicate differently; alto-cumulus clouds.  These are puffy clouds with a base somewhat higher up in the sky than the clouds we typically see.  On some storm chases, the presence of alto-cumulus clouds indicated the presence of moisture at higher levels of the atmosphere.  This was seen as a good sign on a storm chase, but, on a backpacking trip, is a bad sign.

The first few miles of the day took us by a lake we are glad we did not chose to camp at the prior evening, and then back into the woods, where once again the trail was muddy kind of on-and-off.

Headed farther up in elevation, towards the summit of the day, we approached the tree line, encountering several waterfalls.  This one, by far, was the most pictureqsue.

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I did not even know the name of any of these waterfalls.  In fact, I did not even verify that they even have a name.  It didn’t even seem important at the time.  We just liked what we saw.  At that time, most of the conversation within our group revolved around whether we would see marmots in the nearby rocks, and speculation as to what elevation the tree line was at at this latitude.

We followed the Rincon La Vaca (Cow Canyon) trail, which is also considered a section of the Continental Divide Scenic trail, above the tree line, and approached a rock formation we had been looking at since early the prior afternoon, “The Window”.

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This is where we decided to stop for lunch, at a lake where we could safely refill our water bottles.

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It was noon when we finished eating lunch and, four of us (out of a group of six) decided, despite the potentially ominous weather, to make a side excursion.  We dropped our packs and hiked the 500-ish feet (and half a mile) up to “The Window”

We got back to the lake, where our backpacks were, around 1:00.  As soon as we prepared to move, and catch up with the rest of the group, it started to rain.  A few minutes later, ice pellets began to fall from the sky.

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We briefly took shelter from the inclement weather, but eventually soldiered on through the not quite rain not quite ice, which would eventually change over to snow!

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I experienced a lot of this living in Chicago.  I called it “precipitation jambalaya”.  But, I never thought I would hike through it, and, well, am used to experiencing this in December, not late August!  Once again, that thing about the seasons!

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The precipitation stopped right before we turned off the Continental Divide/ Rincon la Vaca trail, and started looking for the trail we would take back towards the reservoir, the East Ute Creek Trail.

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The scene looked familiar.  The shape of the Ute Creek Valley where we were headed, with an open meadow surrounded by mostly dead forests on either side looked quite similar to the Weminuche Creek Valley we had hiked through the prior day.  The trail, though, was hard to find.

For the first mile we kept losing the trail, or we just saw it show up only as a barely visible line in the grass.  We actually speculated as to whether or not this trail was so infrequently used and/or maintained that mother nature was basically starting to take it back!

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We hiked until roughly 5:00 P.M., and by the time the day was over we hike a total of 10.2 miles (11.2 for those of us that took the side excursion to “the window”).  The last hour featured two crazy river crossings where we actually removed our socks and shoes.

We found a campground near a small lake called Black Lake, where, once again, the weather took a turn for the worse.

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The rain started shortly after 6 P.M., and did not let up until after sundown.  I rushed back into my tent!  With all of the experiences of the day, the mixed precipitation at over 12,000 feet elevation, wading through water, and now, once again, more icy rain, I was cold!  I was way colder than I wanted to be, and way colder than I ever imagined being in the month of August.  For the first 20-30 minutes, I had to lie sitting still inside my sleeping bag, otherwise I would start to shiver.

All I could think of were things that were HOT and DRY.  I wasn’t even thinking of warm, pleasant experiences, like drinking rum on a beach in Puerto Rico at sunset.  I was thinking about things that would immediately heat me up and dry me off; sheets that were pulled directly out of the drier, a sauna, Death Valley!

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With the hard hiking parts over with, I had originally hoped to have kind of a party with the group on Saturday night.  We had even brought flasks, filled with whiskey for such an occasion.  But, the weather changed my plans, as the rain continued and I continued to periodically hear thunder through the 7:00 and 8:00 hours.

I also did something I never do on group trips; read.  I joke I often bring a magazine or even a book, places, but never touch it.  This time I actually read.  It was the July edition of Adventure Cyclist.  Fitting for the mood, thinking about warm places while trying to stay warm, I read full stories about cycling journeys through Morocco and Hawaii, both warm places!

I guess regardless of whether you are in an urban setting or in the wilderness, life has a way of changing plans.  In the city, it is some merger, or a random change in commodities prices.  In nature, it is the weather.  But, when it comes to rain, and anytime rain changes my plans, I always do my best not to complain.  Even while I was bummed that I was not partying with my friends and hating how cold I was in my tent, I was mindful to remember that rain is necessary for the food we eat, the water we drink, as well as everything that made this trip possible in the first place.  I do not want to be one of those people that fails to realize this, and cannot put up with a little bit of rain.

 

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.