Tom Ross: Yampa River has peaked in Steamboat, twin bare spots on Storm Peak have yet to merge
Tom RossSteamboat Springs — Can we all finally agree that the local myth about the two bare spots on Storm Peak has finally been disproven? And not even disproven, but flat-out busted?
Many of my friends and acquaintances insist that the peak of spring runoff on the Yampa River coincides with the merging of the two spots on either side of the face of the peak. As much as I think it sounds romantic, I’ve never bought it.
It didn’t happen in 2011 and it certainly hasn’t happened in 2013 — the two bare spots in the snow still covering much of the bald forehead of Storm Peak atop Mount Werner were still separated on Sunday afternoon. And the Yampa River, after peaking in the middle of the night of May 26 and into the morning of May 27, has been in a near free-fall for several days since.
The Yampa was flowing at half of its seasonal norm for June 2 on Sunday, and although the afternoon heat caused the river to spike Sunday night, it’s not going to rise significantly again until 2014.
Despite the warm June weather, the two bare spots had not reached out to shake hands as of midday Monday. The bare spot on skier’s left resembled an upside down apostrophe Monday afternoon, with the tail reaching out in vain for its larger sibling.
I will grant you that there is historic precedent for farmers and ranchers keeping an eye on prominent snow fields shimmering in the June heat in order to gauge how much longer they would have snowmelt to irrigate with.
It was while covering the drought during the summer of 2012 that I learned that irrigators will often recognize a perennial animal shape in the snowfields on mountains that are visible from their ranch and say something like, “When the wapiti’s antlers fall off, I’ll have two more weeks to irrigate.”
So why shouldn’t a similar rule of thumb apply to Storm Peak? I would say it’s because the circumstances surrounding the bare spot on the right side of Storm Peak face (skier’s left) are no longer natural, but human-caused.
To begin with, there used to be a stand of large evergreen trees (I’m thinking Englemann spruce) in the vicinity of the bare spot.
What’s that? You can’t remember there ever being spruce trees in that area? It was quite a few years ago that the ski area removed the trees in order to groom an intermediate route down the face. They did something similar on Hurricane.
If the trees were still there, they would cast shade on parts of the slope and hold the snow longer into the spring. Foresters study and quantify the effects of timber cuts and forest fires on snowpack retention. It’s a science.
But here’s the real clincher for the Storm Peak myth. The ski area also makes snow on the groomed portion of Storm Peak face. That simple fact has to alter the date when the bald spot first appears and ultimately grows to link with its mate on the other side of the slope.
I’m enamored with folklore of this nature. It’s part of what makes the American West a great place to live. But this myth is a goner.