Aspen spring: mother of all mud seasons? |

Aspen spring: mother of all mud seasons?

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Colorado’s mountains have been transformed, sculpted by an undulating layer of snow so deep that trees lose their height and jagged contours disappear beneath a billowing blanket of white.

Locked in snow, the high-country landscape holds the promise of a memorable spring ” one of endless backcountry touring and raging whitewater, not to mention the mother of all mud seasons.

Snow lovers and river rats are beaming. Hikers and mountain bikers, anxious for the earth to re-emerge from winter’s cocoon, may have a long wait. Whatever one’s passion, the spring and summer of 2008 may be one for the record books, or at least fodder for tales of epic outings, much as the winter that preceded it has left an indelible mark in many a skier’s memory.

While paddlers in Chris Vogt’s Glenwood kayak shop speculate about running creeks that aren’t typically navigable, Roger Hennefeld of Basalt joins the legions of backcountry skiers who are hoping to ski lines that don’t typically hold enough snow ” just as they’ve been doing inbounds all winter.

When Highway 82 over Independence Pass is cleared of snow ” likely a Herculean task for state road crews this spring ” Hennefeld will be there. So will every other skier and snowboarder around who’s counting the days to the May 22 target date to reopen the pass.

Hennefeld’s goal: “I’m hoping to ski in July for the first time this year.”

That may well be possible.

“I would say July isn’t out of the question at all, the way it is now,” said local avalanche forecaster Brian McCall. “We couldn’t ask for anything better for spring skiing.”

“I think it’s going to be an absolutely incredible year of alpine ski touring,” agreed David Swersky, another avid backcountry skier and a member of Mountain Rescue Aspen.

The depth of the snowpack is astounding, according to Swersky, relating his experience on a recent traverse from West Buttermilk to Burnt Mountain at Snowmass. Tree branches that would typically be 5 to 10 feet above his head were hitting him in the face, he said.

Basalt-area resident Paul Andersen has his own story of deep snow after a hut trip high in the Fryingpan Valley this month. Andersen and his fellow skiers found the remote Skinner Hut, at 11,000 feet, virtually buried. Snow blocked the windows and doors; a huge drift buried the deck.

“There is such an enormous snowpack; even at midrange you’re skiing on 4 or 5 feet of snow, which is just amazing to me,” Andersen said. “Certainly northern exposures are going to be snowpacked well into June, maybe late June.

“It’s going to be a great year for skiing peaks.”

Ski tours that typically begin with a hike in normal years may be skiable in their entirety until at least late May, Andersen speculates.

Hikers may be less than thrilled. And local mountain bikers are already grumbling about the prospects for a soggy season of fat-tire travel. Popular Aspen routes like the Iowa Shaft Trail, which cuts into the Hunter Creek Valley from Smuggler Mountain, sees little sun. When it will be rideable is anyone’s guess. The same can be said for the shady stretches of the Sunnyside Trail and a host of other popular pedal routes.

Four-wheeling opportunities and high-country hikes may not be accessible until midsummer at the earliest, said Tim Lamb, forestry technician with the Forest Service’s Aspen/Sopris Ranger District.

“A lot of places that people go backpacking to ” Snowmass Lake, Conundrum Hot Springs ” are going to be snowed in certainly through June, maybe early July,” he predicted.

Even those who go prepared with snowshoes may encounter mountain streams so swollen with runoff, they dare not attempt a crossing.

Forest Service campgrounds on Independence Pass, particularly Lost Man Campground, may see delayed openings, and Forest Service roads that are gated until they dry out ” on Basalt Mountain, for example ” aren’t likely to open soon, said Lamb. County roads that are not plowed may remain locked in snow for the better part of the summer.

“This could be a year when Pearl Pass doesn’t really melt out until August,” Lamb said.

Foot travel up Pearl Pass, south of Aspen, may be hampered as well, since a huge avalanche this winter took out the pedestrian bridge over what is likely to be raging water at the base of the pass in early summer.

Hikers anxious for their annual pilgrimage between Aspen and Crested Butte may find themselves shut out until late summer.

“If you’re looking for bare ground, it could be August or something,” McCall said. “It could be a short summer for hiking.”

“Hiking to Crested Butte? That’s going to take until … West Maroon Pass, that’s got to be shoulder-deep snow up there,” agreed Swersky, abandoning his guess as to when the route might open.

Hikers may encounter more than deep snow well into summer. The hefty snowpack could spell avalanche danger beyond the typical spring skiing season, according to Swersky, who helps organize an annual Mountain Rescue Aspen avalanche course each January in Aspen.

“Wet-slab avalanches ” they move very slowly, but they can be very lethal because they weigh a ton,” said Swersky, who advises skiing early and being off the slopes by noon. If overnight temperatures drop below freezing, skiing before noon is generally considered safe, giving springtime skiers a little piece of mind.

Hikers who venture into the mountains once the freeze-thaw cycle has ended will need to be aware of what’s around them ” and above them ” if the snowpack lingers. Avalanches aren’t just a wintertime phenomenon. In June 1992, two members of a climbing party on South Maroon Peak near Aspen were killed when a late-season avalanche broke loose and carried them down the mountain. The two weren’t buried, but were killed by the impact of falling against the rocks.

While backcountry skiers and boarders salivate at the snowpack totals ” 127 percent of average on Independence Pass in the last week of March, 139 percent of average midway up the Fryingpan drainage and 139 percent of average near the headwaters of the Crystal River ” it’s the water content in all that snow that inspires wet dreams among paddlers.

The water content of the snow during the last week of March was 145 percent of average in the Roaring Fork Basin, according to monitoring by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The water content of the snowpack in the upper Crystal River Valley, south of Carbondale, was a staggering 151 percent of average.

Two local rafting companies, Aspen Whitewater Rafting and Blazing Adventures in Snowmass Village, typically start the season in mid-May, offering thrill rides at a discount before the tourist season commences.

“The runoff for the locals’ special is going to be incredible,” declared Jim Ingram, owner of Aspen Whitewater Rafting. He checks the snowpack measurements regularly. “At this point, the amount of water that we’ve got pretty much states we’re going to have a great season.”

For rafting companies, an extended runoff, produced by cold nights and warm days, is the hope. A long spate of hot weather and warm nights will send all the water down at once and could make certain rapids ” Slaughterhouse on the Roaring Fork near Aspen and Shoshone on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon ” dangerous. Commercial companies will temporarily suspend operations when the water gets too big.

Slaughterhouse never exceeded runable levels last year, Ingram said. Dropping water forced his boats off that stretch of river in late June. He’s hoping to see Slaughterhouse runable into July this season.

“This year, we’re expecting to be able to use it through July 4, which is fantastic for us,” he said.

Water levels haven’t quite reached optimal levels in the new whitewater park on the Colorado River in West Glenwood Springs, but paddlers are already checking out the features, and shooting the breeze in Chris Vogt’s Glenwood Canyon Kayak, perched above the park.

“There seems to be a buzz in the shop. People are coming in, not necessarily because they want to buy anything ” they’re just chatting it up,” said Vogt, who’s happy to join in the conversation. “What I’m interested in is all the little runs that usually can’t be run.”

The speculation is apparently good for business. The shop has already sold four rafts this season, matching its raft sales for all of last year.

“It’s a sign, I think, that a lot of people are really excited about getting on the river,” said Vogt. “I think I’m going to go through a lot of oars this year.”

While whitewater junkies drool, area anglers can only guess what a mammoth runoff will mean for fly-fishing. A turbid spring torrent is a fact of life on Colorado rivers, though the dam-controled Fryingpan provides an outlet when the runoff makes fishing impossible elsewhere. The only question is how long it will last.

“It’s likely that most of May and most of June are pretty much gone ” that’s what I suspect. The Fryingpan would be the exception,” said Drew Reid at Roaring Fork Anglers in Glenwood Springs. “We just hope we don’t lose all of July.”

A big snowpack and prolonged runoff kept the shop’s guides out of the water until July 25 in the mid-1990s, Reid recalled.

Cam Scott at Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt takes a philosophical approach. If the snowpack doesn’t blow out all the rivers in one huge meltdown, it could mean higher water throughout the season, which would be good for the trout and a boon to fall fishing.

“As far as the fly-fishing world is concerned, water in the rivers is great,” Scott said.

No matter what one’s passion, spring runoff is shaping up as a spectacle not to be missed.

“I just think it’s going to be an event. It’s going to be something to witness,” Andersen said.


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