Shift change POV from the other crew.
2010-03-25 22:50:22.000 – Ryan Knapp, Staff Meteorologist
Ice hanging like tinsel on trees around 4000 ft.
If you frequent these comments, volunteered on the summit, sat in on a polycom at our Weather Discovery Center in North Conway, or taken a tour of the summit, you probably know that we hold shift change every Wednesday. And since I started here (Dec ’05), I can count on one hand the number of times where we weren’t able to hold this weekly ritual on a Wednesday: 3. The first time, we upped the switch to a Tuesday because we knew the weather was going to be too dangerous to operate in on Wednesday. The second time was because the wind shield wipers on the Bombardier snow tractor weren’t working. And the third time, as you read in yesterdays comment, was due to the weather.
So out of the roughly 200 trips I have taken up and down on a Wednesday, only three have been affected which is a pretty impressive stat. That’s not to say all the other trips have been a cake walk, especially this winter. Several times during winter (especially this winter), like Stacey stated yesterday, the tractor was unable to summit to drop off/pick up our Edutrips. Occasionally, it’s a mechanical issue but the thing that cancels most our Edutrips up the mountain is visibility. If the operator can’t see past the blade, they won’t continue on because it will only get worst the further up they go. And this is what happened yesterday.
Normally if we lose visibility, we stop and hope that a brief pocket will open up to allow us to edge up a bit further. If it is really bad, occasionally (if conditions are safe to do so) we will put a “guide mule” (an observer tied to a rope) in front to guide the operator up by walking on the edge of the road with the rope between the two. And this winter, this has been a common occurrence. Conditions have been so bad at times this winter with drifting that the winter cut off has been used a few times for the first time since 2001.
So what made yesterday so bad that we had to turn around? Well, to get that answer, you have to back up a few days to the Sunday/Monday storm first. The cut-off low brought a significant slug of rain for most elevations which, after temperatures dropped, firmed up to a foot or two of ice. It also turned the road the tractor comes up on into a slushy mess. This slushy mess remained on the lower elevations of the auto road but the higher we climbed, things began to firm up into a foot or two of ice. A quick moving front from the exiting low brought new snow and a tightening gradient brought increasing winds. The new snow, although not amounting to much, had nothing but ice to fall onto. So anything that fell on the summit was being blown down to the elevations below making for ground blizzards. So as the cat rounded the turn around 4000 feet, visibility dropped to nothing. We slowly edged to the 4300 site where we sat and discussed what we should do. We could have had a “mule” lead us up but if were having trouble this far down, it would have been a long, dangerous hike and ride up. But the key thing was the lack of a back up plan. With both NH State Park Bombardiers out of commission for routine repairs, there was no other snow tractor available to help us out of a jam. So, it was decided to pack it in until Thursday morning when the weather would improve and NH State Park could come up with us.
Flash forward to today’s alternate shift change. When we arrived at the base, we were under blue-bird skies with the summit fog free and winds around 17 mph. The State Park tractor lead the way first at 10 am with us following soon after. Between the two tractors, the road was slowly leveled out as we inched up the summit. Along the way we stopped for about an hour to chop through about a foot of ice before digging down in what remained around our 4300 foot sensor site. An additional stop was made at 5300 foot site for some light deicing which only took about five minutes with an ice scrapper and an ice axe. After three hours up, we hopped out, unloaded, and the elated down going crew was on their way a day later than they hoped for. But don’t feel too bad for the other crew having to spend an extra day up here (it wasn’t the worst I’ve seen or heard about), at some point this summer when the road and weather improves, we will come up a day early to make up for the lost time. So now we play the waiting game…
Ryan Knapp, Staff Meteorologist