The Heat Is Online

Colorado Snowpack Gone Two Months Early

Colo. heat makes peaks dangerous

The Boston Globe, June 7, 2002

The miserable weather news just keeps coming for Colorado. The entire state has been declared a federal disaster area because of a prolonged drought. Blistering temperatures and hot winds fanned at least four wildfires over the weekend, including one that destroyed 100 homes.

Now comes the sobering but not unexpected announcement that the snow in Colorado's mountains has totally melted, about two months earlier than normal.

The absence of a snowpack worries the cities and towns that rely on snowmelt to fill reservoirs.

But the bald peaks are causing concern about the early onset of the Fourteener Season, a four-month period in which about 250,000 climbers mount assaults on Colorado's famous 14,000-foot peaks.

The Fourteeners are a great source of pride in Colorado, which is home to 54 of the nation's 91 peaks over 14,000 feet. But rescuers and alpine specialists fear that the weather conditions here could make for a risky climbing season. Already, they say, inexperienced and ill-prepared climbers have attempted ascents they would have balked at in years past, when portions would have required slogging through snow and ice.

Now, more enthusiasts are climbing earlier, just when the state's high-altitude peaks are potentially more dangerous than ever. The extensive snowmelt has exposed vast, unstable boulder fields that usually remain snow-covered year-round and that now are prone to slide.

And, if current weather patterns hold, the early heat and lack of moisture could mean sudden and severe lightning storms in the mountains, which can prove highly dangerous to exposed climbers.

''They've been climbing since late April, and the summer season usually begins in July, if you want some kind of measure of how it is now,'' said Melissa Maestas, a visitor information specialist for the San Isabel National Forest near Leadville. The forest had eight Fourteeners, including Mount Elbert, Colorado's highest peak at 14,433 feet.

''Without a doubt, we are seeing more people on the mountain, and much, much earlier,'' Maestas said. ''We tell them they climb at their own risk.''

Many here saw the deaths of six climbers on Washington's Mount Rainier and Oregon's Mount Hood last week as cautionary tales for the summer climbing season. Three people died on the 14,411-foot Mount Rainier after being trapped by a severe storm. On Mount Hood, a climber's misstep sent nine people plummeting into a deep crevasse, and a helicopter dispatched to rescue the climbers crashed.

''I think it's a foregone conclusion that people will venture into the back country earlier this season than in a year of average snowpack,'' said Charley Shimanski, director of the American Alpine Club.

Ed Crothers is one of the owners of the Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park, which is the oldest guide service in the state. The school recently held a guide meeting and reviewed the special problems in store for this season.

''Our biggest concern is rock fall,'' Crothers said. ''There are receding snowfields with rocks held in place by snow and ice. Those rocks are no longer being held in place.''

This story ran on page A2 of the Boston Globe on 6/7/2002.