Saturday, April 18, 2009

Refugees 'R Us

Austin and I are currently refugees. We were forced to evacuate Nederland yesterday because of the snow.

This was a pretty big storm (UPI reportage). On Friday, about 36 inches of snow fell between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. By the next evening, Ned had about 48 inches, and Rollinsville (7 miles west) has about 54 inches. That makes this the biggest storm in five years, bt not bigger than the 2003 storm that dropped more than 60 inches in 24 hours all over the region.

Austin and I were in Boulder early on Friday (I teach from 8 to 10:20 on Fridays). Boulder got the weather, but the snow was mixed with rain, resulting in a slushy mix about 4-6 inches deep. I had a couple of meetings in the afternoon and then about 4 p.m., Austin and I set off for home.

The drive up through the canyon was very treacherous. I was in four-wheel drive the whole way, and still almost lost control a couple of times. We arrived in Ned about 4:45 and managed to get up Caribou ok (they were still plowing then). But then we got to the house, we were confronted with a 3-foot pack on our driveway, with a five foot buildup near the road (courtesy of the snow plow).

Austin and I picked our way to the house (Austin made it about half-way before he couldn't make it any further). The trip was exhausting, blazing a trail through thigh-high snow is extremely difficult for a few feet, much less the 100 yards separating the road from the house. But we made it. I deposited Austin, grabbed a couple of shovels, and trudged back to the Jeep.

I spent a couple of hours digging out the first 15 feet of the driveway, just enough to pull my Jeep off the road (I was worried about the snowplow coming along and hitting it, though I didn't know at the time that the snowplows had already given up on keeping Caribou clear).

When I finished (around 6:30 or so), I trudged back to the house and collapsed in the garage, exhausted. Then I started to go upstairs when I realized the garage door wasn't coming down. The power was out.

That sent a chill down my spine. We lost power once before for a couple of hours and discovered that when the electric pump that pulls water from our well loses power, we lose water.

Suddenly I realized that we had not heat, lights or water, and about an hour of daylight left. I hurriedly stripped (my clothes were soaked), pulled together a suitcase and started trying to gather resources. I knew I couldn't make more than two trips to the Jeep, and one of those would probably be carrying Austin.

So I packed some supplies and everything I might need for a an extended trip, and made the first trip. Each time down and back cost me about half an hour. On the second trip, I planned to carry Austin, but he proved to be a trooper and he scampered about 3/4 of the distance before his back legs froze and I had to rescue him.

Once in the Jeep, I thought we were safe, but I didn't know the half of the challenges ahead of us.

The storm finally unleashed its fury, and I experienced my first whiteout. The snow fell so fast that when I tried to clear the windows of the Jeep, the first one I cleared would be caked by the time I rounded the Jeep. We were taking on about an inch a minute. And it was only a matter of time before I was going to have to dig the Jeep out.

So I set off, even though visibility was poor.

The problem with driving in heavy snow is that as the snow falls faster and faster, one can't distinguish between the foreground and the background of the view. I couldn't tell the difference between the road and the sky, much less the road and the snow banks on either side.

Adding to this challenge is the fact that you cannot clear the vapor from the inside of a vehicle. I opened the back windows completely and ran the defroster on full blast, but only the middle third of the windshield was clear (and it never improved, not even hours later).

But I knew if I waited, the conditions would only deteriorate. So I pushed on, trying to use the trees as memory markers for where the road was.

I did ok until I reached the turn at the Caribou ridge. This isn't a terribly difficult turn, but it's where the treeline drops away. If you drive off the ridge, it's a good 100-foot drop to the base of the canyon.

There are guard rails and reflective signs, and I eased around the corner.

Right on the other side of the turn, I encountered another vehicle. Caribou is dual lane, but the snowplows usually don't clear a full path. So I moved closer and closer to the edge of the ridge and barely passed the vehicle. At this point, I had rounded the bend and entered the main crosswinds. Visibility was zero. I couldn't see the road, I couldn't the edge of the ridge, everything was pure white.

Nervous not knowing how close I was to the edge (falling off the mountain is not a good image), I tried to get to the center of the road I couldn't see. Then I saw the outline of a cross that marked the death of a local woman who had slid off the ridge years before. I decided I didn't want to be close to that, and slightly overcorrected. Fifty yards later, I had buried the jeep in a snowbank on the left.

At first I didn't know what had happened. Everything was still white, but I couldn't move.. I tried to open the driver side door, but it was held shut.

I climbed over the console and exited the passenger door, and then saw that I was, indeed, deeply buried in the drift. So deep, the light from my left headlight was not visible. I climbed back in and tried to back up, but had no traction. I downshifted into low 4-wheel drive and tried to pull forward, and didn't budge.

Thankfully, I had been too tired to carry the blade shovel back to the house and had thrown it into the back of the Jeep. I began to try and dig the Jeep out, which was up to the roof in the drift.

Over the next hour, alternated digging and climbing back in to move. I finally got the Jeep to rock, and eventually demolished enough of the drift in front of me to pull free.

As I breathed a sigh of relief, I cautiously pulled forward. The snow that had accumulated in my hair began to melt and rivers of cold water ran down my face and down the back of my neck. But I didn't dare kill my inertia, so I slowly picked my way down Caribou.

When I finally reached Highway 72 (Peak-to-Peak), I thought I was golden. But it hadn't been plowed either, and had about 3 inches on snow.

I slowly worked my way toward town. I couldn't see much, and everything looked unfamiliar. The circle was invisible.

I simply trusted that the signs were accurate and turned out the circle just to the left of the sign for Hwy 119. I saw two vehicles get stuck ON THE HIGHWAY, so I made sure not to allow my inertia to fall below 10 mph. When I reached the reservoir, visibility improved a little. Or at least, I could see the dark void to my right that I knew I wanted to avoid.

Once I passed the dam, visibility again deteriorated. I finally caught up to someone and used the dull red eyes of their taillights to aim the jeep. Every turn was a nightmare, twice I lost control and had to fight it back. The Outback in front of me lost control once, and I thought they were headed into the canyon ravine, but they corrected just in time.

It took an hour to get to Boulder. But we made it. And I'm glad. I saw the Associated Press reports later that night. One person had already died and hundreds were stranded in their vehicles. The national guard was mobilized to get people to shelters and deliver cots and blankets to those stuck between communities.

So, Austin and I spent the next 48 hours in Boulder. The snow continued to fall in Nederland, and I later found out that 9,600 people had lost power (including 4,600 in the Nederland area), and it didn't come back all night.


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