By Cassidy Storey
It is (another) radiant bluebird day in the San Juans, and thirty people are strapping on snowshoes in preparation for San Juan Mountains Association’s third interpretive ski and snowshoe tour this winter. We have another full crowd ready to explore the powdery landscape, learn the story of the snowpack, and connect with fellow winter recreation enthusiasts. We are thrilled with the turnout and invigorated by the energy buzzing through the parking lot just north of Andrews Lake.
This is the latest success in a transformative year for SJMA. Since last Spring, we’ve exponentially expanded our stewardship and conservation efforts in the region. You may have run into one of our Forest Ambassadors on your favorite San Juan National Forest trail last summer, or volunteered at our biggest Christmas Trees for Conservation lot yet. Perhaps you were one of those thirty participants at the last Après Ski Science & Social or you joined us for a full moon hike beneath the Twilight Peaks. One thing is certain, we are increasingly energized in our goal of empowering people to explore, learn about, and protect the San Juan Mountains and public lands of Southwest Colorado.
There’s a lot to look forward to as our days noticeably get longer and warmer. Starting in May, SJMA’s Forest Ambassador crew will be returning to the most popular trails in the area while the Wilderness Stewardship Crew will work on improving the backcountry for users of all kinds.
Using the momentum we built this winter through our school field trips, interpretive events, and Snow Ambassador program, we’re making big plans for summer. You will have the opportunity to join us for volunteer-guided naturalist hikes, forest ecology tours in Montezuma County, and special interpretive events throughout the season to learn more about our beloved San Juans.
Our plans now will result in a summer season filled with learning, adventuring, and connecting as public lands stewards. We hope to increase responsible recreation in these special places and inspire appreciation for their existence and benefits. By creating engaging interpretive events, we aim to draw in visitors and locals, capture a curiosity, develop an interest, and leave our guests with an undeniable sense of place and a little bit more knowledge than they had before. For nobody will protect a place they do not care about, and nobody will care about a place they do not experience.
As winter comes to a close, there are still two more opportunities to participate in our popular Après Ski Science & Social. Join us on Saturday, March 12th, for the interpretive tour featuring Joe Grant, local ultra runner, Protect Our Winters Ambassador, and San Juan Mountain aficionado. We look forward to enjoying the San Juans’ finest powder, learning about the importance of our mountains’ snowpack, and hearing about how Joe came to be concerned with the precipitous decline in snowpack we’ve seen over recent years. We’ll wrap up this series on March 26th.
Stay up to date on all of our interpretive events by visiting sjma.org/events or signing up for our e-news at the bottom of our homepage. You can also find the latest on all our work by following us on Facebook and Instagram.
By Alex Miller
The San Juan Mountains Association works in partnership with our federal public lands partners to ensure that visitors to our mountains can continue to enjoy the grandiose viewsheds, beautiful hiking trails, world class off-roading, designated Wilderness Areas, and incredible winter recreation opportunities that make this area great.
Along with these claims to fame, the San Juans are also known for the huge number of avalanches they produce in the winter. Avalanches are cascading piles of snow, ice, and debris that occur on slopes steeper than thirty degrees. They require snow, which we often have here, and mountainous terrain, which we always have. Though only a winter hazard, avalanches are responsible for killing numerous backcountry travelers each year. Luckily, some wonderful resources can help visitors to southwest Colorado stay safe this winter. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) and the San Juan Mountains Association’s public lands stewardship programming both strive to inform winter recreationists on how to stay safe and recreate responsibly this winter.
Before the Rocky Mountains were so densely settled, mining town residents observed avalanches and developed local knowledge to avoid perishing in them. Greenhorns were filled in on how to survive their commutes to the mine, and when disaster struck, whole communities participated in rescue efforts (Di Stefano 2015). With the advent of winter recreation after World War II, local avalanche knowledge rapidly developed into a field of research with help from the US Forest Service and ski areas they managed (National Forest Foundation 2015). As the field grew, so too did the research locations, and what better place to study avalanches than the San Juan Mountains.
Several prominent avalanche researchers worked in the San Juans from the 1970s onward through the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research’s (INSTAAR) San Juan Avalanche Project (INSTAAR History). The project’s goal was to study what caused so many avalanches here and how to mitigate the hazard they created along HWY 550. Researchers brought their avalanche experience to Silverton and, in the tradition of their mining predecessors, developed a strong, localized understanding of avalanches. This time, their local knowledge contributed to a broader community of avalanche researchers across the world and was informed by decades of scientific discussion. Between local observations and universal knowledge, INSTAAR researchers could more accurately predict when to close HWY 550 and similar mountain highways. Thus, the San Juans became not only a hub for avalanches, but a hub for their study.
After an avalanche buried and killed HWY 550 snow plow driver Eddie Imel in 1992, CDOT began sponsoring the CAIC, an organization responsible for studying and forecasting avalanche conditions throughout the state (Knox Williams 2020). The CAIC draws from the pool of knowledge established in mountains around the world, pairs it with local observations from individual mountain ranges like the San Juans, and spreads information in digestible ways to residents like you and me. For winter recreationists, checking the CAIC avalanche forecast is the first step to a fun day in the mountains. By providing this important information, the CAIC and avalanche researchers around the West are playing a vital role in helping visitors to the San Juans have safe, enjoyable trips into the mountains.
Through our winter programming and snow ambassador program, the San Juan Mountains Association is also doing its part in showing residents and visitors how to recreate responsibly in the snow. This winter, join us on one of our Full Moon Howler trips (hosted by the Durango Nordic Center), our bi-weekly Aprés Ski Science & Socials on Saturday afternoons outside the Outdoor Research tiny house north of Andrews Lake, or say “Hi” to our snow ambassador John next time you’re out for a ski tour near Molas Pass.
Alex Miller is the Montrose Public Lands Ambassador for the San Juan Mountains Association.
The winter season in Southwest Colorado is one of beauty, change, quiet and inspiration. It is difficult to imagine a more picturesque winter mountain setting than what each one of us is blessed with on a daily basis. People from across the country travel here to experience the aesthetic beauty possessed by the mighty San Juan Mountains. When the snow has fallen and many trails, peaks, and alpine lakes seem inaccessible, know there are safe locations to travel to and different methods to reach those special places.
The informed winter enthusiast must always consider the topography and potential for avalanches, current snow condition, future weather possibilities, and have the proper gear and the knowledge of its use. Even when all of these factors are prepared for, during certain weather conditions there is always the potential of avalanche danger. Remember this simple but important truth, “Enough snow to ride? Enough snow to slide.”
While we don’t want to deter folks from getting out in the snow, the winter recreationist should know the potential for danger if the proper precautions are not taken into account. Any number of different “gear lists” can be found on-line for different occasions; some essentials to bring on your San Juan adventure include: at least one detailed map of the area, a compass, extra warm clothing, a warm blanket (in case of an unplanned overnight stay), flashlight or headlamp, pocket knife, first aid/survival kit, extra nonperishable food, and more water than you think you would need. The San Juan National Forest offers a free winter guide/brochure, “Where to Go in the Snow, on San Juan Public Lands”, which includes a gear list as well some avalanche awareness and survival tips.
Purgatory, Hesperus, Telluride, and Wolf Creek are good options to downhill ski and snowboard, but where would a person go in the San Juans if they were looking to walk a trail, snowshoe, cross country ski (XC ski), or snow-bike? Haviland Lake about 17 miles north of Durango offers a wonderful winter trail system. This is an area with minimal avalanche danger, a well-established and maintained trail system, it is right off Highway 550, and no major mountain pass prevents its access. Are you looking for more snow and a higher elevation experience? A little further to the north past Purgatory lies the Molas Pass Winter Recreation Area. If the snowpack is minimal, or there is an early or late season urge to snowshoe, Molas Pass is where to go. Just to the south of Silverton off Highway 550, at an elevation of 10,910 feet is where you will find this gem. There are 200 acres designated specifically for non-motorized use, which allows for more of a wilderness experience and provides a safer environment for all.
Closer to Cortez and Dolores there are some good prospects to be explored. Just north of Dolores is the Boggy Draw trail system, which functions as a snow-bike and snowshoe trail system in the winter months. Closer to Mancos is the Chicken Creek XC Ski area, which provides another nicely groomed trail system with the emphasis here being on cross country skiing. These areas near Dolores are a bit lower in elevation, so if we experience a lack of a winter like last year these locations may not be covered in snow. Up near Lizard head pass next to Trout Lake on the Uncompahgre National Forest is another vast winter playground to explore. Cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snow-biking, and snowmobiling each can find a home here at 10,222 feet on Lizard Head. The trail destinations mentioned in this article have been selected because they generally do not exhibit extreme avalanche danger. However safety and preparation are ultimately up to the user, one must “know before you go”. For more information about winter safety and recreation please visit or contact the San Juan Public Lands Center at 15 Burnett Court in Durango or (970) 247-4874. The Public Lands Center contains one of our bookstores for the San Juan Mountains Association; we have an assortment of guide books and maps available, along with first-hand knowledge and information to benefit any winter recreationist.
The snow covered peaks of the San Juan Mountains are sure to inspire and charm, but must also be respected. The solitude one can find in these mountains is utterly remarkable, there is an entire outdoor recreation industry in the Four-Corners which can attest to that. Even in winter, John Muir knew exactly what he was saying, “the mountains are calling, and I must go.”
What an amazing mid-winter thaw! All this warm weather makes it hard to remember the preceding cold and snowy months of January and December and even early February. The deep snow and bitter cold have made this winter extra tough and stressful for local wildlife.
While some animals are hibernating and others have migrated to warmer latitudes, those that have adapted to tolerate the winter have to work harder to stay alive.
Tolerating wildlife have a variety of techniques for surviving the winter. One technique is to yard up. Deer often do this in the deep snow. They create a small network of trails and sleeping areas. They do not stray out of this area into the deep snow, even if they see other food nearby. To do this would risk too much energy. In a particularly harsh winter, animals may run out of food in the yarded area.
As a result of the harsh winter, there will be more winter kill among local wildlife this year. Although this is all part of nature, one can’t help but feel a little sad about starving and frozen critters. The Durango Herald reported back in January that Durango locals have spotted many carcasses near town and even seen mountain lions feeding.
But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. There are measures you can take to help wildlife make it through the winter.
Respect wildlife closure areas. Both the Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks and Wildlife manage seasonal closures of public lands. These closures prohibit public access in order to create a less stressful environment for wintering animals, or in some cases, nesting raptors. Starving animals conserve calories by moving as little as possible. Human encroachment from foot travel, biking, motor vehicle use and dogs – even on a leash – can startle wildlife and cause animals to run, therefore using valuable energy stores.
For more information about winter closure areas in Southwest Colorado, including maps, contact the BLM Tres Rios Field Office in Dolores at 882-7296 or Durango at 247-4874, and the CPW Durango office at 247-0855.
Minimize Impact Elsewhere. Animals that live near paved roads, populated areas and ski areas are habituated to noisy humans and are not as stressed by startling sounds. However, winter recreationists – skiers, snowshoers, fat bikers, snowmobilers and even ice climbers – who venture miles away from civilization pose a threat to the survival of wintering animals.
There are a number of studies out there that weigh the effects of noise from different types of human travel in winter. One study showed that deer are more startled by people on foot than snowmobiles. However, snowmobiles do have a greater impact in one way – the weight of snowmobiles causes the snow to collapse, destroying the subnivean underlayers needed by small mammals to survive winter – subnivian meaning “under the snow.” These subnivian creatures create a network of tunnels in the snow and create food caches. It is often much warmer under the snow than out in the open.
Owls are also suffering during this harsh winter. A study on the northern spotted owl showed that a visual disturbance from as far away as 100 meters can disturb the owls.
If you read the Feb. 14 Herald article about the tough winter for wildlife near Glenwood Springs, you are familiar with the fact that there has been an unusual number of dead owls this winter.
This was attributed in part to a lack of small animals above the snow, but human encroachment can also play a part.
So when going into the winter backcountry, think about the creatures that live out there and tolerate the weather all winter long. We humans can choose a warm bed at night, whether we tolerate by heating our house or migrate to southern Arizona and camp out where it is warm.
By MK Gunn
As we have experienced in our area recently, ice is a reality in winter. Watching out for ice on the roads and sidewalks practically becomes second nature this time of year, not to mention falling icicles from rooftops! Let’s explore ice properties a bit more – ready for an easy chemistry lesson?
Ice is solid water. In fact, there are 14 known solid phases! Commonly used, the term “ice” refers to the most abundant phase, ice Ih. It is a crystalline solid that you can see through or may be blue-white depending on what is in the air. The addition of materials changes the appearance of ice (particles, sand, dirt, salt, etc). Ice is formed when liquid water is cooled below 32 degrees Fahrenheit or zero degrees Celsius.
When solid, ice is a mineral of hydrogen oxide. Ice is unusual in that it is the only non-metallic substance that expands when it freezes. The solid state of ice is eight percent less dense than liquid water, which is why ice floats. This is an important factor in Earth’s climate – if ice sank, the entire body of water would freeze, killing practically everything in it. The water molecules in ice are packed close together, preventing it from changing shape. Ice has a very regular pattern with the molecules connected by the hydrogen bonds that form a hexagonal pattern. These crystals have a number of open regions and pockets making ice less dense than liquid water. Since ice has a lower density than water, pressure decreases its melting state and can force ice back into liquid water. In the past it was believed that slippery ice is caused by a thin layer of melted water on the ice, due to pressure. Many scientists now believe that the ice molecules that are in contact with the air cannot bond with the molecules of ice beneath – the transition molecules are in a somewhat-liquid state and act as a lubricant. This is not always the case – the extreme South Pole conditions do not make ice and snow slippery.
Ice, snow, hail, frost, and polar ice caps are examples of water in its solid state. Liquid water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius. The ice can then either stay frozen, melt as temperatures climb, or sublimate, turning directly into a vapor. Sublimation occurs naturally with strong sunlight, winds, low relative humidity and low air pressure. It also occurs in frost-free freezers with a fan and air circulation, which keeps a low relative humidity. However, ice cubes also sublimate in this environment, so they may need to be replaced regularly.
Some interesting ice facts:
- 68.7% of the fresh water on earth is stored in ice caps, glaciers and permanent snow
- Glacial ice covers 10-11% of all land.
- 99% of the ice in the world is found in Antarctica and Greenland
- Ice can create erosion by water seeping into rocks and cracking them open when it freezes and expands.
- “Black” ice can form on lakes as well as roadways, and occurs when the ice forms 6-sided, vertically organized columns with few air bubbles. The ice is transparent, and when on roadways looks simply wet, instead of the slippery stuff it is.
Now that you’ve had your chemistry lesson, go out and enjoy your winter, walk carefully, and watch out for that black ice!
By Gabi Morey, Education Outreach Director
Winter in southwest Colorado is finally here! In this weather our local animals have many survival strategies – they may migrate, hibernate, or adapt their lives to the new surroundings. However, some of the most fascinating animals are those that manage to survive while remaining underneath large amounts of snow throughout the winter. Their environment is called the subnivian zone, meaning “under snow”.
When the temperatures get frigid outside, a deep layer of snow – about 10 inches or so – can act as an insulating layer to animals beneath it. The warmth here actually comes from the Earth’s core. The snow at the bottom of this layer changes form, and becomes ‘sugar snow’, or depth hoar, where the flakes don’t stick together very well. This is a benefit to small animals who can then move through it easily. Some of the most common animals that can be found under the snow are mice, voles and shrews. They burrow under the snow, finding seeds, stems and even beetles and larvae to eat. Some of the plants they find to eat even manage to stay green and growing during the winter. The small mammals living here make an amazing network of snow tunnels, and even create air shafts to get oxygen. However, it is typically very dark under the snow, making eyesight a secondary sense to these animals. Whiskers help profusely to help them find their way through the network of tunnels.
Despite these small mammals seeming to be well hidden under the snow, predators such as ermine, owls, foxes and coyotes are aware of their presence. Ermine, or long-tailed weasels, are small and thin enough to actually enter the tunnels, while larger predators appear from above, diving snout first (such as with coyotes and foxes) or feet first (such as with owls and other raptors) to grasp their prey. When you’re out this winter, look for the beautiful wing prints that owls and other raptors leave in the snow when capturing their prey.
Animals even smaller than mice manage to live under the snow as well. This includes mites, springtails and spiders. Springtails, which are small insects that can spring themselves into the air can actually be seen above the snow as well on warmer winter days, and are a great food source for the spiders under the snow. In order to survive under the snow some spiders and insects produce a sort of antifreeze in their bodies which prevents ice crystals from forming.
Things also change for animals and plants beneath the ice in the winter. Water beneath the ice doesn’t freeze, but it still remains extremely cold – usually in the mid-‘30s. Actually, the main problem for animals down there is not the cold, but the lack of oxygen in the water. During the rest of the year oxygen is added to the water through air and water currents, waves, and plants photosynthesizing. In the winter, none of this happens. Animals that live beneath the ice are cold blooded, meaning their body temperature is the same as their environment. Thus their metabolism slows down, as do their movements – some even become dormant. In this way they need less oxygen and food through the winter.
When outside this winter, you can experiment with your own ‘subnivean zone’ by creating a snow shelter, sometimes called a quinzee. These need to have quite thick walls (1 – 2 feet) to work best, but once you’ve built it you can even sleep in it at night! Or, if sleeping in the snow isn’t your thing, enjoy having a hot chocolate in front of the fire and give a thought to the animals and plants surviving the season outside in the cold.
By Gabrielle Morey, SJMA Education Outreach Director