Springtime weather here in the High Country makes you just a little crazy.
This mountain mental illness could be good old seasonal affective disorder (SAD). But it’s a little different from getting SAD on the Raincoast where the sky can be grey for years at a time (a semi-exaggeration but one winter Blue Eyes and I didn’t see the sun for 95 straight days on Bainbridge Island). No, the mountain version of this disorder starts with the realization that it seems like you have been cold and wind-blasted forever. You can’t walk anywhere without keeping a weather-eye out for ice because it’s simply a matter of time until a slip slides into an all-out arm-flaying tumble. Your truck is a semi-permanent grey-brown from the magnesium chloride they put on the Interstate. And while your body adjusts to the cold and wind, you just can’t quite get the cold out of your inner core. It’s just there. No one gets completely warm or through a winter without a couple of tumbles on the ice. And it takes at least two wash jobs in May to get the truck back to its original color.
It is late March here in the High Country that means one day you might actually consider skiing in shorts and the next day you are dressed in four layers head-to-toe for January-like weather. It’s hell to pick your day’s outdoor ensemble first thing in the morning. The best bet is long johns and hiking shorts under your bibs, along with four layers on the top, starting with a polypro T-shirt. As the day progresses you vent the layers, and then on a break, dump the long johns, bibs, and a top layer or so and go spring skiing.
Getting dressed gets even sillier than that when you live in the foothills at 5,500 feet and have to figure out what to wear at 10,000 feet. It’s an easy bet that it will be a good deal colder at Brainard Lake or the East Portal of Moffat Tunnel than it is in Boulder but the springtime hope remains that you could actually have decent weather up there.
There is a mythology about “Springtime in the Rockies” and even a song. Look up the lyrics and you’ll have to laugh, because springtime in the Rockies simply isn’t about “flowers aflame” and “birds singing.” The folks from flat places imagine that spring up here is sort like spring in their hometown; a gradual lengthening and warming of the days over a couple of months. It’s crocus and daffodils blooming, robin, little grey birds, and tank tops, typically in that order. It’s a little different in the High Country where I do some volunteer work in the winter.
We get geared-up in Boulder and get to Brainard dressed the same way we have been dressed all winter, like we were in Nome headed out to trek across the Bering Strait land bridge. We go dig-out the warming hut door and the doors to the pit toilets, and then walk down to the gate and head up one of the trails. After a quarter mile or so we find ourselves opening jacket and bib vents. That can happen on any sunny day of the winter, but it is often wishful thinking and the vents get quickly zipped shut. Not on this day. Maybe in another half mile we stop and peel off at least one top layer that gets stuffed in the pack.
One of the first things we notice is that the people we meet coming downhill are all grinning. This grinning can be attributed to any number of things, including Colorado being on the forefront of legally selling recreational dope. But then we pause because something is radically different about this day from the winter days before. We stop the kick and glide and just look around for a moment. Both of us are quiet. One of us says, “Can you believe this?” because the air temperature is not cold, but it’s not warm either, it’s just sort of unusually benign, there is no wind, and the blue sky looks like it could go on forever. We take off our watch caps, and another layer of clothing gets stuffed in the pack. We simply can’t believe the magic of the day. Other folks along the trail smile, and we now know they are feeling exactly the same thing, “Winter is over, springtime has come.”
When we go out to work the very next day, the wind nearly rips the doors off the truck when we open them at Brainard. My lined GoreTex bibs feel threadbare as I pull my balaclava over my head and put on goggles, making me look like I am about to hold-up the local jiffy-mart. It’s as if I simply imagined the day before. My partner shakes his head, like some huge furry thing refusing to get out of his cage at the zoo for a cleaning.
In April the days will begin to alternate between longer periods of warm weather and shorter cold blasts. Obviously there will be no flowers aflame, but we will begin to notice that some birds are back in the High Country, no doubt up from Arizona or southern New Mexico with all sorts of stories to tell us about dumbassed politicians. Or maybe the birds will be just making fun of us, because they think we no longer belong up here on skis. But the one thing we will notice is that our kick and glide has become grab and stomp, with snow sticking to our bases like they were magnetized. We will still mostly walk on top of the snow but we know that it is only a matter of days until we will sink into the snow up to our knees. Post holing sort of indicates that the ski season is over.
It could be time to dust off the bikes, plant some lettuce, and call that old skipper with the 36-footer at Shilshole asking if he’s looking for crew this summer—Desolation Sound, Alert Bay, maybe even the Queen Charlottes?
Alan Stark is a member of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol and lives with this blue-eyed woman and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge.