It’s snow business for the weak |

It’s snow business for the weak

Jordan Curet The Aspen Times

Big snowstorms in Aspen automatically deploy an army of men and machines.

While many local businesses practice the “6-inch rule” and dismiss employees for a day of skiing when Aspen is inundated with snow, city streets crews go by the “3-inch call-out,” an alert that turns crew members’ days into nights of plowing, scooping, moving and dumping huge piles of snow.

And with recent storms, crews are going all out.

“Usually it starts with a phone call,” said Willy McFarlin, assistant supervisor of Aspen’s city streets department, who regularly finds himself pacing the floor of his New Castle home, waiting for weather data and preparing to call his crews to action.

This year has been one of the “toughest snow years” he’s seen in a long time.

“What family?” he quipped when asked what his wife thinks of his long hours. “She married into it.” McFarlin’s two children are nearly grown and his wife is very understanding.

“Deepcember” saw nearly 60 inches of snow fall on Aspen, according to the National Weather Service. And with a succession of storms in early January, McFarlin’s staff found themselves buried, literally.

Crews have carted some 3,265 12-yard loads of snow from Aspen’s Main Street and downtown core to the city snow dump near the Aspen Airport Business Center, according to Jerry Nye, director of the city’s street department. Add to that some 588 dump-truck loads from city side streets, and the total amount of snow more than doubles the statistics from the same period in other years, Nye said.

“This has been a pretty good winter for us,” Nye said with a laugh.

In between storms, drivers work regular shifts that keep trucks moving around the clock in an effort to get snow off narrow side streets, but during big dumps crews work overtime just to keep the main throroughfares clear, Nye said.

“We’re not in a panic mode,” Nye said during a recent pause from big dumps. City crews have had time to catch up with recent snows, and Nye has a small budget surplus that should enable him to stay on track financially, he said.

But Nye is running out of places to put the snow, and the Aspen City Council recently approved temporary snow storage in a number of downtown locations. That means day crews can drop snow in places like Koch Lumber Park and Paepcke Park in the daytime, and then truck it out to the city snow dump near the Aspen Business Center in the wee hours when there’s no traffic, Nye said.

“We’re not buried anymore. We see the light,” Nye said Jan. 15, adding that continued storms, however, could exceed his snow storage capacity and tax his staff and resources.

The 17-year veteran said he’s seen as much snow in Aspen in other years, “but in this short time frame it’s the most I’ve seen.”

After a recent storm, I had a chance to ride along for the night to watch the ballet of men and machines that McFarlin choreographs via radio.

McFarlin manages a crew of 10 drivers, plus some 19 subcontractors with dump trucks who cart snow off Aspen streets. And after a recent storm he worried about a new $180,000 snowblower that was going out for its first trial. One of the auger blades was rubbing against the metal hood.

The driver returned to the shop with the noisy rig, and the two men had a close look at the machine.

“It’ll either wear in or wear out,” the driver said, and turned the behemoth back into the dark night.

“If you get a blast of snow like this,” McFarlin said, “you’re going all the time.”

“These guys live for this,” McFarlin said. Many on his crew are veterans who dive into the task without a word from their supervisor, he said.

McFarlin himself takes a turn behind the wheel of his own city dump truck to join the choreographed routine.

On a 3-inch call-out, it’s all about priorities, McFarlin said.

First, crews clear snow from Highway 82 from “bridge to bridge” through the center of Aspen, then hit the city’s downtown core. Next come alleys and side streets, but McFarlin said during the succession of early January storms they had their hands full with just the downtown.

Crews first “pull the curbs,” McFarlin said.

Waiting until traffic thins out at about 11 p.m., McFarlin sends two 30-foot-long “motor graders” onto Highway 82 to plow snow into the center of the street, making a high windrow of compact snow in the center median.

Grader drivers go against traffic along Main Street, and try to get a head start on snow removal crews, who meet at the city streets department for a quick gulp of coffee and a strategy talk with McFarlin before hitting the streets at midnight.

A massive snowblower chews up the 2- to 3-foot-tall windrow. The blower’s massive augers first compact snow and then shoot it through a tall spout into awaiting dump trucks lined up along Main Street.

It takes just 10 seconds for the blowers to fill one 12-yard dump truck and, one by one, the trucks hustle into place to be filled.

“It’s like a parade,” McFarlin said, adding that crews recently broke their record by hauling 324 loads in one night. When some 33 inches fell on Aspen in less than a week in early January, it took crews a few days and more than 1,000 loads to clear.

Dump-truck drivers then haul the snow to the city snow dump near the Aspen Airport Business Center.

The men might have a moment to grab a candy bar or a cup of coffee, but mostly they don’t have a moment’s rest all night, McFarlin said.

At the snow dump, a snowcat driver pushes snow from trucks high onto the top of a heap. And as the dump fills up, the driver pushes the snow higher onto a mound of snow that could rival any ski area in the American Midwest.

One of the biggest obstacles for snow removal crews are the cars left on city streets. Starting at 3 a.m., a handful of subcontracted tow-truck drivers come out to clear illegally parked cars (no one can park in the downtown core from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m.), McFarlin said.

But throughout the city and residential area, McFarlin’s crews come up against abandoned vehicles. City of Aspen parking crews have run out of places to put the cars, so many are just swallowed by the massive snowbanks, McFarlin said.

Many Aspenites wake up after a big storm without a thought about where all the snow goes, Nye said. Snow removal, like a lot of community services, is mostly a “thankless job,” he said.

The streets department hears mostly complaints from homeowners frustrated they’ve been plowed in.

“A lot of people are used to our little storms,” Nye said, but many residents don’t remember times when Aspen got so much snow.

McFarlin said he gets many an earful from frustrated motorists and homeowners, he said.

“We get a lot of people that are upset at us for plowing driveways and plowing in cars. What do you do?” McFarlin said. “We’ve got to get the streets open.”

Occasionally he’ll get a thumbs up from a passing driver.

“That warms you up and keeps you going for a few hours,” McFarlin said. The “class clowns” on his crews also keep things from getting too heavy as work goes on into the early morning, he said.

“There’s times you hate it,” McFarlin said. “But when you see some accomplishments, it makes you feel good.”

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