The hurricane of ’16
February 27, 2016
The weather this past week has been about as pleasant as February can get around here. The days are significantly longer, and the afternoons sunny and inviting. Productivity was never a big part of life for me, but these long afternoons just demand going out for walks with the dog to check on the critter situation. After a winter with the wildlife more or less hunkered down, the animals are on the move. One short walk came across tracks from fox, what looked like bobcat, a couple of places reeking of skunk, and the usual deer. The rabbits have been breeding like rabbits, and their tracks are everywhere. The eagles have left the river because the rabbit hunting is so good.
Something unknown has been lurking in the woods behind my house. Whatever it is, the dog doesn’t like it, and after years of taking care of business in roughly the same spot, he has decided that he will relieve himself in the opposite corner of the yard, out in the open. He sits and growls out the window.
The contrast with this benign weather and last week’s hurricane is a little hard to get my head around. The big blow was a week ago Thursday. It was not a reasonable day to be skiing, but I had a friend in town and wanted to ski with him. As he often puts it, "How bad can it be?" Well, turns out, really, really bad. We were at Deer Valley. The whole eastern half of the mountain was closed from the get-go. There’s a reason there are no trees on the top of Bald Mountain, and the lifts were all on wind hold.
The Northside area was open, and the snow was surprisingly good. The bottom layer hadn’t frozen over night, and it had a few inches of fresh, creamy, spring snow on top. It was very nice skiing, even with a stiff wind. And then, like somebody flipping a switch, the wind shifted. We were on the lift when it went from an annoying-yet-tolerable wind to a full-blown hurricane. The chairs were swinging and the lift slowed to a crawl. The wind yanked at my skis like they were sheets of plywood. The trees had never seemed close to the lift. That day I wondered if I was going to get knocked out of the chair by a tree leaning over.
Mature trees, a foot or more in diameter, were snapping off like pencils and crashing down on the runs. Of course I wanted to take another run just to get a close look at it. My friend, a voice of adult reason, suggested that getting marooned in Cushing’s Cabin with cookies and coffee, was maybe better than standing at the bottom of the lift while the patio furniture from nearby condos blew off the balconies. So we went in.
Snow was blowing through the weather stripping on the windows. Sticks and other stuff were bouncing off the outside. The employees closed the shades in case the glass blew out. After a half hour, we decided to sound retreat. The ski racks had blown over and stuff was scattered around. There were trees down everywhere. At Silver Lake, a couple of hundred people were standing in a relatively calm zone, trying to figure out what to do. All the lifts were closed by then. Anxious parents with kids in ski school — somewhere — were wondering if their children had been blown to Wyoming. Ski patrol, lift operators, and mountain hosts did an amazing job keeping everybody calm and explaining the options.
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The wreckage was essentially cleaned up the next morning. Overnight the runs were cleared; the layer of pinecones and twigs that had covered everything was gone (vacuumed up?). I didn’t think there were that many chainsaws in the county. It all looked normal. Until I got into the trees. It felt absolutely surreal. Hundreds of trees were broken off, and the sky was open. The ground was covered, and even if you weren’t familiar with it before, you could tell something very powerful had happened. There were ways through the maze of downed trees, and it was actually pretty fun. The same thing happened at Park City, with Black Forest almost walled off by fallen trees along the ridge. Getting the trails open this spring will be a huge job.
A storm like that is a good reminder that we are not really in charge of anything around here. Nothing is certain. My neighbor, who grew up in Kansas, was unimpressed. He said they don’t call it "windy" in Kansas unless there are cows from neighboring counties falling out of the sky.
Spring-like as it is, we all know better. There is still plenty more where that came from.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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