Lightning halts Snowmass lifts |

Lightning halts Snowmass lifts

Scott Condon and Tim Mutrie

A weird winter got even weirder Tuesday when lightning forced Aspen Skiing Co. officials to delay the opening of Snowmass ski area.

The mid- and upper-mountain chairlifts were closed because a hand-held lightning strike indicator detected several strikes in the area, according to Snowmass general manager Doug Mackenzie. High Alpine, the Big Burn and the Garret’s Gulch area received the brunt of the storm.

“In fact, we had one [strike] up there at Up 4 Pizza,” said Mackenzie, referring to the mountain restaurant at the top of the Big Burn chairlift. The charge knocked out telephone service but didn’t cause any lasting damage.

“As I recall, we have had lightning in March and April,” Mackenzie said. “But I don’t remember having it in January.”

“This is the first time I’ve heard of a thunderstorm” in January, echoed Rose Abello, director of communications with the Skico.

Local weather sage Jim Markalunas said he couldn’t recall an electrical storm in the upper valley during the month of January – ever.

“It’s a pretty rare occurrence,” Markalunas said. “I don’t really recall any January thunderstorms that I can distinctly remember. In March, April and May sure, I remember a few, but not in January.

“It’s possible if you get the right conditions, but it’s got to be a highly unusual occurrence.”

The Climate Center in Fort Collins and the Grand Junction office of the National Weather Service agreed that an electrical storm at Snowmass in January is unusual.

“The reason it happened is due to this deep, dynamic system that just moved through here,” said Dr. Mike Meyers, science and operations officer with the National Weather Service. “The lightning that occurred was associated with that very strong front, and it was very unstable.

“It’s not typical to have thunderstorms this time of year, but it can happen with a strong front like that. It happens so infrequently that there aren’t really any records.”

Meyers said there were other thunderstorms around the Western Slope Tuesday.

“In these last few weeks, there have been fairly strong storms moving throughout the whole country, but what’s happening in the south, southeast is a totally different beast all together,” Meyers said.

Skiers and riders on Snowmass’ chairlifts would have been fairly safe during the lightning storm because the lifts are grounded, according to Mackenzie. But it wouldn’t have been safe to be skiing in those conditions.

There was concern that the lightning could have caused normal lift operations to malfunction, Abello said, as all the lifts are controlled by computers.

The Aspen area in general and Snowmass ski area in particular have been plagued by strange weather this season. After a late October snowstorm, there was below-average snowfall through November and December.

When the snow finally showed up in January it was accompanied at Snowmass with strong, scouring winds. Now the oddity of a January lightning storm has Snowmass staff members shaking their heads.

“It was like, `holy smokes, what’s next?’ ” Mackenzie said. “I would just like a normal day. It doesn’t have to be three feet of powder with blue skies. It could be gray.”

Mid-mountain chairlifts re-mained closed until about 10 a.m. The upper mountain chairs opened about noon, when the threat of more strikes passed. The High Alpine lift never opened yesterday. The Fanny Hill and Assay Hill lifts, lowest on the mountain, opened at the normal time.

Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk Mountain were not threatened by thunderstorms and opened as usual Tuesday morning.

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