By now, Loretta McEllhiney should be above treeline on Colorado’s biggest mountains, analyzing how late-season snow settles on the tundra. That’s part of her job in plotting trails as the U.S. Forest Service’s fourteeners program manager.
“I keep having to move my calendar; I changed it two weeks already,” she said from her home in Leadville as snow pummeled the high country earlier this week. “And I bet I’m going to be changing it again.”
The problem is, this late-season snowpack in May more so resembles white fields in winter, making her analysis moot. McEllhiney is thinking mid-June at this point.
“That will have moved me a full month back,” she said. “That’s a lot of days to lose when I have such a short season already.”
Typical high-altitude seekers can expect an atypical season, too.
The reality should be settling in as we approach the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kicking-off point for the camping season. The holiday also usually marks the opening of Independence Pass, but now officials are eyeing early June. Cottonwood Pass also won't open to the summit, and a delayed construction project is expected to continue for much of June. Also set for a delayed opening is Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.
After heavy snow this week, crews were working to clear Guanella Pass and the Mount Evans Scenic Byway, two others usually celebrated by Memorial Day weekend crowds.
Snowpack levels statewide climbed above 200 percent of normal this week, and above 300 percent in the southwest San Juan Mountains. Snow commonly clears by mid- to late-June, but forecasters expect that to be later this time around.
In The Denver Post, Chris Bianchi of WeatherNation TV compared this year to 2011, when his models showed mountain snow wasn't fully melted until July 20. “When mid-May snowpack levels are as high as they currently are, the full melting of the state’s snow is typically delayed by about three to four weeks,” he wrote.
That complicates things for the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, the nonprofit often working alongside McEllhiney on the state’s highest trail projects.
“It’s certainly gonna affect our work,” said Brian Sargeant, CFI’s development and communications manager. “It seems like we’re either dealing with the threat of wildfires because we didn’t have enough snow, or dealing with really heavy snowpack, which delays our crews getting into the field.”
On deck this year: work on Mount Elbert and Mount Columbia and Grays and Torreys peaks. Those last two are among the most popular on the Front Range, but the road to them has been seen covered by avalanche debris in recent pictures circulating on 14ers.com. Other photos have shown damage across the road to Huron Peak’s trailhead. Slides earlier this spring also closed Henson Creek Road to fourteeners along the Alpine Loop.
Anyone looking to conquer any of the high peaks anytime soon should be especially prepared, McEllhiney said.
“You’re gonna need either skis or snowshoes, and you don’t even want to consider going without like gaiters; you’re gonna be post-holing to your waist,” she said, adding ice axes and crampons to the list. “It’s full winter climbing conditions.”