Serious Winter

Column by George Sibley

Climate – February 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

THIRTY BELOW in Gunnison again! Minus 33, according to the Denver TV, so it must be true!

And then there are all those radical thermometers down by the river. So-and-so had 44 below! I heard a minus 46!

Gee, it’s shaping up like a real winter again for the first time since ninety-something, or eighty-something. First we get a snow around New Year’s worth shoveling here in Gunnison (which means three feet up in the mountains). Then it gets COLD! Cold enough to freeze the … well, never mind the street metaphors. It’s cold enough to make even a Subaru groan in the morning, and the furnace is spinning the gas meter like a July Fourth pinwheel. Ah, winter!

I know, of course, how fast this will get old. I went out last night at dusk to clear away, for the second time yesterday and the fourth time in two days, the plowbanks the snowplow had piled up in front of the driveway. The clouds had cleared by then, and I could feel the Great Interstellar Suck beginning (the black vacuums of space suck off whatever paltry amounts of heat the northern hemisphere manages to store up during the brief day).

The joy of shoveling was already starting to wear thin, but I knew if I didn’t get to it then — in the evening not too long after the plow had made (please God) its last pass — by morning it would be a solidified mass to which I would have to take a pick-ax. Either that, or I could drive over it for the rest of the winter — or until I got high-centered. But not being fitted with crampons by the government, the mailman would refuse to bring our mail if it got to a level requiring level-3 mountaineering.

So I shoveled. And while I shoveled, I thought about winter and cold.

For the past several winters — most of the Nineties, in fact — we’ve joked in Gunnison about needing a “cleansing winter.” It’s been far too pleasant these past winters, we say; all kinds of people are moving in thinking that’s normal. What we need is a good, cold, snowy winter to thin out the summer soldiers. Up in Crested Butte, the old farts, before they all either died or moved to lower elevations themselves, would look at the new businesses up and down Elk Avenue, and shake their heads: See who lasts the winter, they would say.

But when it comes, a serious winter — and it’s too early to tell whether this is going to be a serious one or not — it does lean pretty hard. Especially if you enjoy the advantage of the automobile and are determined to live at street level. Before the automobile, they just let the horses pack it down, or up as the case may be, by pulling sleighs instead of wagons. People shoveled paths and steps up to whatever street level the horse and foot traffic were establishing. In places like Crested Butte, when they still had the train, that prevailed even after the automobile came along; they just put their cars up on blocks for the winter to save the tires.

But when you are determined to live at street level, there’s a lot of snow that has to go somewhere, and you start running out of places to put it.

And the deeper it gets, the denser it gets. Once you get past a foot of snow, the push-type shovel becomes worthless. Eventually nothing really works but a big aluminum grain-scoop, which is sturdy enough to make a dent but not too heavy to keep lifting when you have to throw snow up over a snowbank that’s head high to the NBA.

But here in Gunnison, it’s the cold more than the snow that starts to pile up on you. Half a dozen valleys funnel down to Gunnison, and if you go out onto a hillside at late light or early light, and lie close to the snow, you can see what those valleys are funneling. You can actually see a surface layer of cold air flowing down the hillside, like heat waves rising off the highway in the summer, only these are cold waves flowing into Gunnison.

THEN ALL OF THAT COLD AIR gets to town, and it pools up because the only way it can go downhill out of Gunnison is through the canyons cut in the Gunnison Uplift by the river. One narrow outlet drains off the inflow from half a dozen big inlets, and the waiting room is Gunnison. So the cold air packs in. Then a thousand or so people start up their cars in the morning and idle them for ten minutes to warm their engines, and a thousand or so furnaces pump oxides out into the air, and it begins to feel like living at the bottom of a lake. The sun is shining, but the air is absolutely still, and the sunshine barely filters through that ever-denser and unhealthier inversion-layer of air.

When you are in the middle of it, and those little flecks are falling, which you know are from moisture frozen out of the air, you think about those white piles at the poles of Mars that are oxygen and carbon and nitrogen oxides too. Then, it’s easy to feel the prickling of something like fear. Suppose it just stayed cold and clear like this for a month? Two months? A year? With an ever-thicker layer of snow spreading out of the mountains, out of the arctic, reflecting ever more of the sun’s light off into space rather than capturing it as heat energy….

But sooner or later something always happens to break it up — a new front noses in, or new snow cleans the junk out of the air and breaks up the inversion, or a warm front arrives to squash out that super-cold layer — and eventually the planet tilts back toward summer. Or at least, it always has so far.

George Sibley teaches, writes, and shovels snow in Gunnison.