Mountain Town News: What happened to summer? | ParkRecord.com

Mountain Town News: What happened to summer?

Allen Best
Mountain Town News
Allen Best, author of Mountain Town News.
MountainTownNews

As summer roars on, many in mountain towns frazzled

WHISTLER, B.C. – From Whistler to Crested Butte, exhaustion has been setting in as summer’s economy roars on.

“Back in the day, there was a kind of ‘we-are-in-this-together’ feeling. Besides, we knew that in just a few short months away we would all get some much-deserved downtime,” writes Clare Ogilvie, editor of Whistler’s Pique Newsmagazine.

Now? There seems to be no downtime. The dialogue on social media is telling. “We can hardly post a comment without being roasted,” she reports. “Facebook is becoming one of the most negative forums around.”

Crested Butte also remains very, very busy for just a few more weeks. Paradise Basin is just up a busy gravel road. In town, tempers easily flare.

“There are some, but not many, currently living here who want to see this level of busyness all year long. Ouch,” writes Crested Butte News editor Mark Reaman. He wants continued downtime in fall as an antidote to the busyness of July and early August, long the town’s busiest time.

“Instead of cursing the dirt biker on the trail he or she is entitled to use as much as you when you are hiking or mountain biking, look inside and call upon more patience and peace to share what we all enjoy,” he advises his readers. “A smile goes a lot further and is better karma than a finger.”

In Whistler, Ogilvie wants no return to the slower times. But the growth has taxed the human capital. Jobs in Whistler have grown from 12,200 just nine years ago to 16,300 now. This, in turn, has exacerbated if not produced a housing shortage.

“We still need more workers,” she writes.

At issue are changes by the Canadian government to the temporary foreign workers program. The government proposes to allow workers to freely move from one employer to another for any reason and at any time. This, says Alroy Chan, chair of the Tourism Industry Association of BC, would only exacerbate the labor shortage.

Why this airplane slammed into the side of a mountain

CANMORE, Alberta – Deprivation of the oxygen adequate for proper functioning of the brain and other parts of the body is a condition called hypoxia. It famously occurs among mountain climbers who have ascended too rapidly without acclimatization or, at extreme heights, like the top of Everest, all climbers.

It also affects air passengers, including the pilot of a small plane that crashed near a mountain summit south of Banff and Canmore in August 2018. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has found that oxygen deprivation “likely played a role” in the crash that killed the pilot and a survey technician.

The Piper PA-31 had taken off from Penticton, B.C., and, after two hours of survey work, was heading toward Calgary, flying at about 15,000 feet above sea level when, according to a flight data monitoring system, things went awry.

The plane had a portable oxygen system, but the pilot was not continuously using it, according to the monitor, which included a camera. Use of oxygen is required when above 4,000 metres (about 13,100 feet) above sea level. Onset of hypoxia can be slow and gradual, so it’s likely the pilot did not recognize the symptoms.

At sea level, air contains 20.9% oxygen. In Aspen and Vail, the oxygen content lowers to 15.4%. It drops to 11.8% atop Washington state’s Mount Rainier, which is 14,411 feet (4,392 meters). Atop Everest, it’s at 6.9%

A 2014 article in Flying magazine explained that linking hypoxia and accidents was hard. Even so, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board’s aviation accident database listed 24 accidents related to hypoxia in the prior decade, 22 of them resulting in fatalities.

One of them occurred in 2003, when a pilot with three passengers took off from north of Denver with a destination of Las Vegas. The pilot at one point told air traffic controllers he thought he was above Montrose when, in fact, he was above Telluride, a distance of about an hour by car. The crash occurred near La Sal Junction, Utah, south of Moab.

Aspen-area spruce trees may be next to get buggy

ASPEN, Colo. – Aspen has so far been spared the hillsides of red pine needles and gray tree trunks that have blanketed mountainsides to the north and the south. That may end soon.

The Aspen Daily News reports some experts believe the Engelmann spruce trees killed in the historically unprecedented avalanches could become massive breeding centers for spruce beetles.

To the north, in the Vail-Steamboat Springs-Winter Park area, an epidemic of bark beetles that began in 1996 took off in the dry, hot summer of 2002 and in successive years, turning forests of lodgepole pine orange and then gray. The spruce beetle epidemic of the San Juan Mountains was more recent but, in places, such as at Wolf Creek Pass, just as eye-opening. Spruce deaths can also be seen overlapping with bark beetles near Grand Lake, at the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Jason Sibold, assistant professor of geography at Colorado State University, declined to say with certainty that the spruce beetle will flourish near Aspen. “But you certainly have the ingredients,” he said.

“You’ve just had an extraordinary avalanche cycle in those areas,” he told the Daily News. “Those dead, downed trees are defenseless.”

Lodgepole have a 160-year life span, according to a report by the Colorado Forestry Advisory Council. But spruce and fir forests, which commonly occur at higher elevations, have longer life cycles, often living for 400 years or more.

Sibold and students conducted research last fall near Independence Pass, the Continental Divide crossing between Aspen and Leadville. They found that past epidemics to of spruce beetles resulted in mortality of only 20% or so.

Based on parallel research in the San Juans, Aspen could be in for a greater loss. Those San Juan spruce forests lost nearly 90% of trees, a result of climate change, Sibold says. “The beetles love the warm temperatures. The trees are extra stressed, so it’s a double whammy.”

Sibold warns that an outbreak somewhere around Aspen will happen in the next 10 years, perhaps just in the next 2 or 3 years.

Can something be done? Not really, Sibold and other experts tell the Daily News. Nature will just have to run its course, much as it has with lodgepole pine.

One reference point is the Flat Tops of northwestern Colorado. There, a giant wind storm blew down many spruce trees in the 1930s, leading to a broad spruce beetle infestation that killed many more spruce. Many of the dead, gray trees remained standing into the 1980s and 1990s, when this reporter used to go backpacking, skiing, and hiking in what is now a designated wilderness area.

Front Range water utility plans forest work in the headwaters

ASPEN, Colo. – Colorado Springs and others plan to spend $15 million during the next five years to thin forests, conduct prescribed fires, and otherwise manipulate headwaters areas of 11,000 acres from which its draws water.

Some of that water comes from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, east of Aspen, and the Fryingpan River. It also gets water from the Blue River drainage above Breckenridge and in Homestake Creek, in the headwaters above several Vail Valley towns.

Colorado Springs is kicking in $7.5 million, to be matched by the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado State Forest Service. The city of 470,000 people at the foot of Pikes Peak also delivers water to three adjoining municipalities.

Denver Water has been involved in a similar project, called Forests to Faucet, in its two primary Western Slope collection areas, Summit County and the Fraser Valley.

The Waldo Canyon Fire in 2002 impacted the watersheds of both Denver and Colorado Springs, burning 138,000 acres west of Colorado Springs and southwest of Denver. The fire caused erosion, plugging up Denver’s several reservoirs along the South Platte River. Colorado Springs also had to repair damaged water infrastructure and restore severely burned watersheds.

Both Colorado Springs and Denver have found its more cost effective to spend money at the front end, to reduce the risk of major wildfires, than deal with the consequences.

Presidential hopefuls pass their hats in Aspen

ASPEN, Colo. – The presidential wannabes continue to parachute into Aspen to pass the hat. Kamala Harris, the senator from California, was there last Friday, while former Vice President Joe Biden and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke are also scheduled to stop by this week.

The Aspen Daily News reports that the invitations for both the Harris and O’Rourke events noted minimum $500 donations for entry.

Biden is also scheduled to press the flesh and pass the hat in Park City during September. No word out of Jackson Hole, which may have even more silver heels than Aspen, about fundraising events. But then, it’s the more favored hide-out of wealthy Republicans.

But Aspen has enough wealthy Republicans that Vice President Mike Pence stopped by in July to ask for help to put the self-described billionaire Donald Trump back into the White House for another four years. He also spoke to the Republican Governors Association.

Melted clothing was best evidence of the affliction

BANFF, Alberta – When rescuers arrived on a mountain slope in Banff National Park to attend to the 28-year-old woman, she wasn’t sure why she had summoned them by cell phone. She had said she was disoriented and had some memory loss, but she wasn’t sure why.

What the rescue team quickly discerned from talking with her and seeing her melted clothing was that she had been struck by lightning. Whether it was by ground currents or by direct strike isn’t clear. She was hospitalized.

Any time you get struck by lightning or get struck by ground currents that are strong, you are lucky to survive. “It was an extremely close call, and it could have turned out a lot worse,” said Banff spokesman Brian Webster.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook notes the general rules of thumb on lightning: get off summits or other high points. Get rid of ice axes, hiking poles, or other metal objects. Better to keep moving downhill rather than just hunkering down. And if your hair stands on end or you hear a buzzing sound, like the sound of bees, skedaddle – and not upward.

A-Basin switches sides after 22 years with Vail Resorts

DILLON, Colo. – Arapahoe Basin last week announced it was partnering with Alterra Mountain Resorts after ending its affiliation with Vail Resorts after 22 years.

The company in February announced it was not renewing its partnership in Vail’s Epic Pass program. It suggested that Vail was producing more skiers than its infrastructure could accommodate.

“While the mountain still has plenty of room for skiers and riders, the ski area is feeling a pinch on parking and facility space,” the company said. “Due to these constraints, Arapahoe Basin believes its staff can take better care of its guests by separating from Vail Resorts.”

No room exists for a new parking lots along U.S. Highway 6 at the base of Loveland Pass. Alan Henceroth, the chief executive, told the Summit Daily News that a multi-million-dollar parking garage wasn’t a viable option. He declined to say exactly how many people were visiting A-Basin’s slopes on Vail Resorts passes, but he conceded it’s a big number.

It’s not great skiing, mostly. So why ski at all during summer?

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – And on through the heat of summer, skiing continues in isolated gullies in Colorado and beyond. The Crested Butte News tells of Ian Hatchett, who has continued skiing through summer since 1987.

“The skiing itself is often pretty marginal,” he explains. So why do it? Well, he suggests, because it’s there. “For me a lot of it was just going out solo and climbing and skiing lines that still exist.

Another, younger summer skier is Drew Kelley, who says that a pointless job across the Elk Range in Carbondale, near Aspen, seems to jibe with summer skiing. To make it through the job, he and a friend relished in irreverence. “Summer skiing seemed just as pointless.”

Why continue doing it?

“I walked 20 miles round-trip through clouds of mosquitoes only to find a particular ski line wasn’t in,” he told the Crested Butte News. “Bu, when stuff starts to melt out, you see lines that don’t really see in the winter. You see things more creatively and things start to look more fun.”

Summer skiing, if mostly devoid of avalanche danger, has its own dangers: scree fields, rock fall, and raging water crossings.

“You’re dealing with wicked sun cups and rock debris, and if you fall in some places, you’re going to slice and dice yourself on the slide down,” Hatchett says. “And then there’s the late afternoon lightning strikes.”


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