The Great Summer Snowstorm of 2020

Off Grid CTO: Labor Day and Storms

Welcome to this installment of life living off the grid as CTO of ModelOp guiding our technical vision of managing Machine Learning/AI models in the enterprise.  Today, we are actually going to talk about something very different than I originally thought.  We had a surprise storm the day after Labor Day, that really disrupted things up here for a day or two.

Labor Day

Well the Labor Day weekend was a great one.  Our company, ModelOp, has a program where half the team takes every other Friday off, and mine happened to land on Labor Day weekend, so I had a four day weekend ahead of me to get things done.  This is a really great benefit for our employees, and really helps them to get some time to take care of things in these crazy times.  BTW, we are hiring!

So with the weather forecast of some snow on Tuesday, and much colder temperatures, we used quite a bit of time to put things away that might get frozen, get some more firewood cut, split, and stacked, but also reserved a bit of time for some fun as well.

Saturday was the Colorado QSO Party on ham radio for Colorado, so I took a bit of time to play on that and hone my radio skills.  If my internet goes out up here, there is not really any other form of communication beyond my emergency inReach device, so I like to keep my equipment skills up to speed.  I contacted around 40 people in states from Florida, NH, VT, to CA and everywhere in between, all point to point with no reliance on anything else beyond my antenna.

We also spent Monday afternoon, after most of the crowds had left, going for a ride in our UTV through some pretty areas where the aspen were starting to turn.  It was beautiful, but the smoke from all of the surrounding fires was obscuring the sun lending an ominous tone to the impending storm.

Last Row In This Bay Filled with Wood

The Smoke Filled Skies in the Afternoon

Hex Beam Antenna

Then the Storm

We went to bed relaxed and feeling prepared for the snow and cold that was to briefly visit us.  We had put the work in that we needed to be prepared.  The wood box was full, everything was put away, and we were ready to go, but overnight the predictions had drastically changed.

Originally, it was expected to have some wind.  we expected the big temperature drop, and up to a foot of snow, but what happened was a surprise windstorm in our canyon that gave us the largest winds I had seen in my 16+ years up here.  We had winds gusting to well over 50 mph, and you would watch the trees just swaying, and in the distance you would hear snapping and trees falling.  Fortunately most of the trees near my cabin have been cleared, but there were still a few and every time a big gust hit, it would leave you waiting for a large ‘crack’ nearby, and after you heard one in the distance, I would try and figure out where it was and what it was hitting…  It was a stressful day and was not quite what we were expecting.


Snow Outside My “Office”

Then Came the Snow

Now with the wind still gusting to 50mph, the snow started.  It was blinding to the point where you could not see my shed which is 20 feet from the cabin.  The cabin windows were coated with snow, and it was coming down hard.

Still, off in the distance you could hear trees cracking and falling, but we still had no visibility into what was actually happening.  Was it the beetle kill coming down, or the much heavier and more dangerous lodgepole pines that are still heavy with moisture and really make an impact?

Safety was always first, though, so we were not going out into the woods to find out.  It would be way too easy to find myself underneath one of those falling trees, and that is not worth the risk unless life or limb is really at stake.  We were staying put and riding this thing out.

Watching Safely

Even though we could not safely venture outside, I fortunately have security cameras scattered about so I can keep an eye on things, and also catch pictures of the wildlife.  This gave us the unique opportunity to at least see some of what was going on, as the cameras tend to see ‘through’ snow rather than capture it.

We have one down on our driveway, and I watched as 4 different trees fell across the driveway, so this meant we were not going anywhere now until this storm let up, and we could safely remove them from the driveway.  So now it was really important we stayed safe and uninjured until these could be removed.

Trees Blocking Our Driveway

A Cold Drink

The Animals

Obviously the animals don’t have any access to forecasts, and this was an unusually cold snap very early in the season, so all of the hummingbirds were still around.  We would see them hiding in the eaves of our cabin from the wind, and try to fly out and get blown backwards.  They were still all around, and oddly, still fighting one another.

We kept one hummingbird feeder defrosted at a time inside, and one outside till it froze, getting them at least some nourishment during their battle with the storm.  All kinds of animals were taking refuge behind our cabin, as it offered protection from the wind.  A harsh life in the mountains indeed, and I was very happy to be inside with the woodstove going and warm and dry.

The Aftermath

Well sometime late in the evening the winds finally died down.  The snow was still heavy though, so we sat down to some home made posole, a much deserved bourbon on the rocks, and a game of backgammon with my wife.  We felt warm and safe inside, and knew we would assess the damage tomorrow, but at least minimally, there was nothing major in our buildings.  The winds still howled, but not on the scale of during the day, so we stoked up the woodstove, and went to bed.

The next morning, I had some work to take care of, so I got up early before dawn, and put in a few hours so I could go out in the morning and get the road cleared.  We have a lot of folks in some of the cabins who may not be prepared to move large logs, so it was time to make the road passable for their safety.

So we loaded up the chainsaw into the back of the ranger, which we nicknamed ‘Columbine’ after the local flower, and prepared to do some heavy lifting.

We found numerous trees across the road which we cleared, as well as the 4 in my driveway, but fortunately  another neighbor with a winch was out as well who had already removed a bunch of them.  We really do have a great adhoc community up here.

We did a quick pass at it to just make it passable, as the conditions were wet and cold.  So while not pretty, it got the job done so others could pass.  It also would let us get out in the case of an emergency.  We will make it nicer once the snow is gone and it dries up.

Loaded Up and Ready to Go

A Blockade

Not So Clean Cleanup


A Large Pine Down

A Whole Stand Down

Well, It Was The Live Ones

As we explored the damage done, we quickly noticed the most unfortunate thing.  None of the blown down trees were the spruce beetle kill, but rather the live tall pines.  The wind would blow right through the dead branches, but the lodgepole still had all the green attached to capture the wind like a sail.  So almost exclusively it was live trees down.

Down in the small mining town a few miles below me, there was some minor damage.  A powerline was pulled down (they have a line that runs just to half the mining town serving 32 cabins), and the town was without power.  A cabin had a tree fallen on the roof, but it appeared to have not caused major damage.  So overall, not too bad.  The NF campground below us, though, appears to have suffered extensive damage from fallen trees.

But another thing I could see was that whole stands were taken down by these crazy downdrafts that were occurring.  Just completely uprooted in place.  In the picture shown here, which is just behind my cabin, dozens of trees were just flattened by the wind.  It looks like I now have a whole lot more tree cutting to do….

Be Prepared

The moral of this story is to always be prepared for anything.  We keep lots of extra supplies on hand, and the right tools to take care of things ourselves.  We also always try to keep the wood box topped up, rather than letting it get low.  By doing this, even though it was stressful worrying about the trees falling on us or the barn, we knew we would be alright.

But you also take care of yourself mentally, and a warm pot of Posole simmering on the stove all day filling the house with both moisture and a wonderful aroma goes a long way towards making a relaxing environment.  Of course a nice bourbon after the danger had passed was greatly appreciated as well.  We not only survived the great summer snowstorm, but thrived in it ultimately as well.

In the next blog post we will be looking at all kinds of off grid lighting options, and what has and has not worked for us.

Thanks for joining me in our adventures,

Jim Olsen

Off Grid CTO

Dinner Simmering in the Cold

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