Breaking trail |

Breaking trail

When I arrived at Kawuneeche Visitor’s Center on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, I wasn’t aware of what I was getting myself into. I knew I was going to do something involving Trail Ridge Road, but other than that, I was basically along for the ride – and I dressed that part, too.

When Debbie Mason, Facilities Management Systems coordinator for the park and our driver for the day, sized up my meager denim jacket and fabric slip-on shoes, she asked, “You do have something else to put on, don’t you?” That’s when I realized this trip was probably going to be a lot more than just a drive through the park.

I examined the beautiful scenery as our van climbed higher and higher, and Mason looked around at the snow walls surrounding us, saying with a laugh, “A lot of people ask us why we don’t keep the road open in the winter.”

In reference to the warning she received earlier about potential fallen trees and rocks obstructing the roads, she replied, “That’s just springtime in the Rockies.”

Along the journey, we passed construction workers, fighting the uphill battle of maintaining Trail Ridge Road. The equipment twisted and reared as it smashed down three inches of dirt, preparing the way to add fresh pavement to the stretch of road. The machines took on the personality of the drivers and eyed us suspiciously as we approached, before realizing that Debbie was just transporting “the media.”

Temperatures by this time had dropped from a sunny 50 degrees in Grand Lake to 27 degrees high above treeline, complete with gusting winds and the ominous sky’s promise of a snowstorm. We could barely see the roof of the bathrooms and the Alpine Visitor’s Center poking out above the mass of snow as we awaited the approach of the media from the Other Side.

Then, from around the bend, not one, not two, but 13 vehicles appeared as we looked on incredulously sitting in the lone car from the West Side.

“Well, this is media day!” shouted Kyle Patterson, public information officer for the park, above the whistling wind.

Bringing up the caboose of the caravan, we traveled back west a bit so that the slew of eager journalists and photographers could capture humanity’s attempt to defy Mother Nature in the form of a giant snow plow blasting snow over the unguarded edge of the road. The plowers began the harrowing job the second week of April, making the slim roadway drivable.

As I gawked at the gargantuan machine in front of me, I felt a presence with a camera to my right, turning to find a man with a very large beard and aviator sunglasses, smiling amiably. This man, who went by the name of Ed, or Igloo Ed as he is known on, which he was representing that day, is a Rocky Mountain addict. An avid camper and lover of all things winter, he explained that he had been coming up into the park roughly once a week every winter for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and igloo building, the latter of which he is an expert at, even inventing a device to construct the ice domes.

I had the opportunity to speak with two snow plow drivers: Sue, from the East Side, who was working that day, and Arnie, from the West Side, who was awaiting his plow’s repair. Sue began plowing in the ’80s, saying that what she loved most about the job was the challenge, explaining that getting in the plow was “like getting in a cockpit,” where “eight hours goes by like 10 minutes.”

Arnie Johnson, who has been plowing Trail Ridge for 15 years, also enjoys the challenge and said that it was his most fun of plow jobs. He said going up Trail Ridge to plow for the first time was always a bit mysterious, because everything just looked flat, a big sheet of snow with some poles sticking out and “you just don’t know.” But when asked if he ever felt scared plowing up there, he replied assertively, “You don’t have time to be scared.”

In typical Colorado fashion, the cool temperatures followed us from Trail Ridge Road back to Grand Lake, where it continued to snow, wind blowing nearly as hard as at the summit of Trail Ridge.

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