2010-12-15 16:35:01.000 – Mike Carmon, Staff Meteorologist
Winter shift changes are almost always more eventful than summer ones. True, there are no tourist vehicles on the road. But the dangers of snow, wind, freezing fog, and mechanical failures are much more daunting than a novice Auto Road traveler.
Today was the inaugural trip of our Snow Tractor for the Winter 2010-2011 season. This is personally my third winter working here, and it is the latest I’ve had to wait to take the premiere trek up the road in our Snow (not-technically-a-)Cat. But weather conditions on Wednesdays have been such that a truck and van with chains have been sufficient to make it to the top.
This was by no means the case this morning, as I pulled into the Maintenance Garage with snow steadily descending, a good 5-7′ already blanketing the ground, and temperatures (at the base) hovering around 10 degrees. We loaded up the van and plunged onto the snowy road, making it up (by way of a few moments of ‘controlled slipping’) to just past the 2-mile mark to the 2-mile park, where our Tractor has been patiently waiting to spring into action for a number of weeks. We loaded our gear into the passenger cab, then rode the van up a little further, to just past the 3000 foot post, as road conditions did allow the van to cut through a bit longer. At this point, Wayne pulled up with the Tractor, and we all hopped in…
…But we didn’t get far. After about a mile, or a little less, the Tractor came to a grinding halt. This is not too unusual, as very often the operator will pause for a brief moment or two while blading. However, when the air went quiet, and Wayne opened the back door and told us we needed to exit, that’s when we were clued in that the situation had taken a negative turn. With subzero temperatures and light snow falling, we waited patiently as the two journeymen, Steve and Charlie (our volunteer), hoofed it down the Auto Road to the van, and then to retrieve a part needed at the Maintenance Garage.
We did our best to stay warm as we lingered somewhere just shy of halfway up the Auto Road as Wayne did a few meantime repairs. Because the passenger cab needed to be tilted back in order for work to be performed, seeking refuge inside was not an option. Instead, some of us did laps up and down a small bit of the road, while others chose in-place exercises to keep from icing up. But after a while, subzero temperatures and an established snow pack begin to take their toll. Toes were numbing up, noses were running frozen, and faces were more red than a Sunday newspaper. A joyous sight was seen nearly 90 minutes later as Steve and Charlie returned in the van, struggling to push its way through the snow piled up on the road like the Little Engine That Almost Could. After a brief installation, we all piled in to the Tractor once more, and headed for higher pastures.
Due to the plethora of newly fallen snow, and its light and fluffy nature, even modest wind speeds of 20-40 mph created near white-out conditions and heavy drifting above tree line. At one point, the Tractor tilted backwards at such a sharp angle that the passengers facing backwards got a little more familiar with the passengers facing forwards as the formers’ were jolted into the ladders’ seats. After leveling out in that direction, the Tractor began to tilt sideways as it attempted to cut through the formidable drifts of the infamous Cragway section. After a few moments that made us feel like we were on the deck of the sinking Titanic, we leveled off again, and the Tractor slowly trudged through the remaining two or so miles to the summit.
It was a harsh winter wonderland near the top, with heavy driven snow and a mercury flirting with ten below. At long last, around 12:30 p.m., we saw the long-anticipated sight of the ice-covered Observatory and radio towers. We made it…a little later, a little colder, and much hardier than when we left the base at 8:30 a.m. It was a memorable journey, and I’m sure we’ll be making similar memories (although hopefully on warmer days) as the winter unfolds.
Mike Carmon, Staff Meteorologist