OURAY – The Ouray Ice Park was closed Monday morning, Dec. 20, having opened for the season just two days before.
Executive Director Erin Eddy blamed “warm temperatures the past 21 days and rain over the past 36 hours [that has] forced us to close the park.
“It’s a matter of safety,” Eddy said in a statement. “Large pieces of ice were calving off into the gorge. And rising water levels in the park have made conditions extremely unsafe.”
Eddy and everyone else in Ouray is hoping for colder temperatures to arrive soon, as the ever-more-popular (and economically important) Ouray Ice Festival is coming up, Jan. 6-9.
Ouray’s woes were just one symptom of the massive weather pattern affecting the western U.S., from California across the Great Basin to Colorado. Forecasters call it a Pineapple Express because of its warm temperatures and the fact that it extends into the Pacific as far as Hawaii.
The storm has pummeled California with record rainfall in the lowlands and mammoth snow totals in the Sierra. Mammoth Mountain reported 34 inches overnight on Dec. 21, 95 inches in the previous 48 hours; 120 inches over 72 hours. Perennially snowbound, Mammoth has broken all records for December snowfall.
Utah ski resorts were getting hammered as well. Alta reported 47 inches in the last 48 hours. Solitude had 50 new inches. Park City claimed 51 inches.
In Colorado “the hose,” as Silverton avalanche forecaster Susan Hale calls it, had not spread the wealth equally. As of Tuesday morning, Telluride was reporting just 6 inches in the previous 48 hours. Snow safety director Craig Sterbenz, in his morning report Tuesday, referred pointedly to a sky “pretending to snow” and “a lotta hot air.” The town of Telluride had not dipped below 32 degrees F since Saturday night.
Meanwhile up north Steamboat reported 21 new inches; Crested Butte had 38. Down south, Wolf Creek measured 41 inches in 48 hours.
This variability was even more localized. Up on Highway 550, where it is Hale’s responsibility to forecast for avalanche hazard affecting the road, “the hose has been turned on over Molas and Coal Bank passes” but not so much on Red Mountain just a few miles to the north. Red received 12 inches over 24 hours, while Coal Bank got 22 inches. Coal Bank’s storm total (so far) was 48 inches of snow, with a water equivalent of 5.75 inches – very heavy, wet snow, as one would expect with these temps.
On Tuesday Hale and her CDOT crew closed the highway temporarily at Coal Bank Pass to shoot avalanche start zones north of the pass. Here’s what she wrote: “First shot of the day into Engineer C [slide path] brought down the whole path: 5-6 feet deep by 300 feet wide covering the road. For those familiar with the area, debris reached the trees adjacent to the restrooms.”
Avalanche mitigation was cited Tuesday afternoon for road closures on Highway 65 over Grand Mesa, U.S. Highway 6 over Loveland Pass, and CO 14 over Cameron Pass. CDOT shot and then reopened Wolf Creek Pass.
Below 8-9,000 feet elevation, the Pineapple Express seemed, so far at least, to be leaving the valleys (and the Front Range) dry, or just a little wet. Ridgway and Ouray had remained mostly dry as of Tuesday evening. Dallas Divide was wet. The Uncompahgre and Gunnison valleys had appeared as anomalous blank spots on the regional weather radar since the storm began. Elevation may be the primary factor in Powderhorn not opening as planned Dec. 16.
Not everybody gets it that a storm slamming into Colorado can have very different results in different locales. NPR’s All Things Considered on Tuesday repeated forecasts that were calling for 4-8 feet of snow “in the mountains” and the potential for road closures. NPR said, “Skiers will benefit. At places like Crested Butte and Telluride. If they can get there.”
For his part, Erin Eddy is not overly concerned. “We’ve closed sections of the park before,” he recalled. And he remembered other rain and warm-weather events in the weeks leading up to the Ice Festival. The Festival itself – this year will be the 16th – has never had to be canceled.
Head Icemaker Mike Bryson looked at the 10-day weather forecast and said he felt hopeful. “Looks like we’ll be cooling down starting Thursday,” he said. “If I can get a week of cold nights . . . we’ll see. There’s nothing you can do about it.”