Buried buildings, endless feet of snow: How Rocky Mountain National Park crews prep the park for winter
Fall has been unseasonably warm for the high Rockies, but above average temperatures and relatively light snowfall has not changed Rocky Mountain National Park’s need to prepare for a long, cold winter.
At the beginning of September each year, Cynthia Langguth, supervisor for Rocky’s Alpine Visitor Center that rests high above the Kawuneeche Valley on Trail Ridge Road, and a team of staffers from the park begin the long process of preparing the visitor center and other facilities throughout the park, for the onslaught of snow that defines Rocky for most of the year.
Park employees must prepare facilities for multiple feet of snowfall, in some cases hundreds of inches, and driving winds that can reach up to 150 miles per hour in places. The length of the winter season is also a challenge as many sections of the Park are closed due to inclement conditions most of the year — places like Trail Ridge Road and the Alpine Visitor Center are only open about four months a year. Sometimes so much snow falls on the Visitor Center that only the very peak of the building’s roof remains visible above the snowpack.
Langguth called the process both, “nostalgic” and “bittersweet” and highlighted the strange feeling Park staffers get as they look over the interior of the Alpine Visitor Center for the last time before closing up the facility for the next eight months. The Alpine Visitor Center is tentatively scheduled to be open from the Friday of Memorial Day weekend to the Monday of Columbus Day weekend, but mother nature can quickly close the facility.
“This year we were scheduled to be open 137 days based on those dates,” Langguth said. “But we were only open about 112.”
According to Langguth most of the Park’s winterization happens at higher elevations, in places like the Visitor Center and there is more winterization required on the west side than the east side.
Langguth said the Park starts prepping for winter closures during the first full week of September. Late September and early October can bring significant snowfall to the alpine regions of the Park and National Park employees get ahead of the curve by starting early. The first order of business is shutting down and winterizing water systems and plumbing networks at the visitor center, Trail Ridge Store, and the flush toilets intermittently located throughout the park.
Nearly every door and window on the Alpine Visitor Center is shuttered for the remainder of the season, excepting the building’s back wall of windows, which Langguth said faces away from the prevailing winds. Langguth confirmed Rocky has never had a break-in at the Alpine Visitor Center, which she largely attributed to the extreme difficulty of reaching the facility in winter months. She added that Park Rangers occasionally ski up to the Visitor Center in winter to service communication equipment the Park keeps at the building.
By the end of September Langguth said she focuses a lot of attention on the weather forecast and once Park officials consider conditions too hazardous to safely traverse the pass Trail Ridge Road, the Alpine Visitor Center, and the remainder of the high altitude facilities in the park are closed down.
The intention of prepping high alpine regions so early is to ensure that Park staffers can simply close the gates to Trail Ridge Road when heavy snowfall makes traveling the famed mountain highway a dangerous proposition.
After alpine facilities have been prepped for the onslaught of snow Park employees turn their sights to other winterization work, including places like the Holzwarth Historic Site which requires the movement and storage of the Holzwarth Family’s artifacts, which are displayed at the homestead during summer months. Park employees also begin the process of replacing the tall thin snow poles along that help guide snowplows along the roadways of the park.
“This is one of our projects that is a real team effort,” Langguth said. “I have staff members help. We have folks from our Buildings and Utilities Branch. Our Visitor Resource Protection Rangers help us manage people. It can be complex but it is a really cool team effort.”
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