How would you feel, after all, if you spent about a week behind drifting walls of snow, as someone living at 10,000 feet with the ever-present chance one of the Ophir Valley’s many avalanche slides might fall down upon you?
Yes, there have been reports that as the isolation and uncertainties continued, people got irked, a little wiggy, over the past several weeks in Ophir. But there are also even more reports of much human kindness, mutual support, of people snowshoeing themselves to work, Yosemite Sam-like. For Ophir is a town of Type A souls, endorphin junkies, of people, dammit, who know the risks.
“If there was a huge slide I would be curious to see what happened,” said the town’s recently elected mayor, Randy Barnes, spin-doctoring all of the percolating talk about what would happen if the canyon’s unbombed slide, Spring Gulch, unleashed potentially horrible consequences.
“People make personal choices to live here,” he said. “This winter, for some, it has been extremely exciting, for others, extremely taxing.”
Just how taxing is revealed by the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office reports. For example, on the evening of Jan. 28, deputies were called to Ophir Road after several motorists got stuck in a snow drift. By the time the deputies got there in the blizzard, the subjects had apparently walked to town, leaving vehicles for warmth and safety, but blocking the county road heading up the valley. Also, as part of the adventure, the sheriff’s report includes the following: “A [San Miguel County] plow also became stuck trying to work around the vehicle. Both vehicles were located in the run-out zone of a well-known avalanche path. Steps were taken to remove both vehicles with the assistance of Town of Ophir-owned heavy equipment.”
The next day, also late at approximately midnight on Jan. 29, paramedics and EMTs and deputies hiked into a snowbound home of Suzanne Beresford, who lives in what’s called East Ophir. She was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. The emergency workers determined that her home had elevated CO2 levels “due to outside vents becoming covered and impacted with snow. Please check and clear the vents on your homes to avoid this problem,” states the report, turning into a public service message.
The next day, another report was inspired by an Ophir snowplow hitting two different private vehicles.
But reports from the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office that day reveal that such incidents of total chaos were hardly unique to Ophir. Reports from Norwood, Ridgway, Trout Lake, Telluride, Ilium and Lawson Hill all included calls about stranded vehicles, erratic drivers, loved ones overdue from their commutes home. Of people unused to the sound of bombs to initiate avalanches, fearful the county might be under some kind of attack. But the situation in Ophir is a veritable social-studies lesson of what can happen when a tiny community is pushed to the brink by bad weather.
For example, other anecdotal evidence from Ophir included the resignation of the town’s road-maintenance man, Matt Basham, who reportedly quit after taking too much verbal abuse from local residents. In the fog of this war against nature, and because Basham could not be reached for comment, the exact reasons for his departure are unclear. However, there are stories coming out of Ophir about people getting incensed about their vehicles being towed to clear the way for snow removal, about folks upset that the clearing wasn’t going fast enough, about a snowplow waking a baby from its nap and an angry mother going outside to chew out the driver.
Which is perhaps why, even before he was asked about these tales, Barnes’ opening statement to The Watch was: “I would definitely support our maintenance department.”
Which is why Town Administrator Rebecca Levy, who has also resigned for “personal reasons” (unrelated to her office being locked in too often by snow), wanted to make sure that locals, rather than venting on its hardworking maintenance staff, call the town administrator first so that such issues can be filtered through the proper chain of command.
“A couple of individuals got really frustrated because they weren’t getting the snowplow services they needed,” Levy said. “They couldn’t get out. The problem was, no- one could get out. People were feeling this sense of urgency to go nowhere.”
But what gets lost in these types of snow weary, blizzard-blinded entries are the far more frequent instances of people pulling together in the face of such difficulties. They shared food, beer, diapers, helped to clear people’s driveways, as well as fire hydrants so that if they could make it through, firefighters might be able to respond to any fire emergency quicker.
The close-knit community pulled together, just as things were coming apart, just as the stress became almost unbearable.
“People have been giving Matt Basham a hard time,” said Ophir resident and Watch page designer Dawn Richter. “We made him cookies.”
For the first avalanche, after bombing by Helitrax crews, people came out onto the street to join together and watch, creating an almost festive atmosphere. But by the time a third avalanche closed the road leading into town, the novelty of such bizarre entertainments was beginning to wear off.
“I’ve never been stuck for that many days,” Richter said. “I just think that it started to wear on people … You had to wonder: Is this Armageddon?”
Barnes, who lives in West Ophir, said he’s seen two of his cars buried by snow twice. He added that he’s “spent days” just shoveling snow.
“It’s one of the most severe winters I’ve seen,” he said. However, as far as he could tell, “the social fabric of the town is fine … you see the full spectrum because it is a challenge for some people.”
But while little problems have been percolating at the bottom of the hill, there’s an angel of anxiety hovering over many concerning the danger of a looming, catastrophic avalanche. In recent weeks, the names of some of the valley’s slide areas – St. Louis, Colorado and Spring Gulch – have become common nouns on the lips of those in the entire region.
Levy said that people in Ophir, who fully appreciate the risks, often refer to the community as “live here at your own risk town.”
Even if people are isolated for awhile, even if the lights remain on, the heat keeps everyone warm enough to watch TV and make cookies and play games in comfort, even if the Hesperus power lines remain attached to the mountainsides, there always remains for residents this undercurrent of concern that must be very much like what’s experienced by people who live on coastal tsunami zones.
One of the issues among the town’s critics, for example, is that because the Spring Gulch slide cannot be bombed due to liability issues, as it effectively must remain as open space between East and West Ophir, and any forced avalanche might damage property and endanger lives, it always remains as a growing concern with each passing snowstorm.
“I wonder if people aren’t always slightly nervous because of Spring Gulch,” Levy said. “It can’t be bombed because the liabilities are too great.”
But under the conditions of this extreme winter, moving through the various slide areas is always a bit of a worry, she said.
“It’s always scary looking up at the mountain. When I’m driving, I am checking to see if things are starting to rumble. I do see people speeding along the road. I don’t speed, but I certainly don’t go below the speed limit.”
Meanwhile, the town’s former mayor, John Gerona, who resigned in December because the town’s General Assembly voted to lighten up on one of its town codes for avalanche mitigation in order to allow residents to make an addition to their home, is feeling somewhat vindicated.
“I still stand where I stood before,” he said. “With Spring Gulch: What will it do? There have been a lot of slides. There was a horse barn a couple of years ago that was destroyed by a slide, and another one was totaled just the other day. When things like that happen, people have to be feeling a little weary about what the weather is doing. They haven’t seen weather like this in some time. People get wary about driving up the valley sometimes. When you are driving in a blizzard, you keep your fingers crossed” – and maybe even wear an avalanche beacon.
As far as the general concern in town that available services can’t meet the needs when nature gets out of hand, the former mayor said there is a need for more patience.
“I feel like they [the maintenance crews] have been doing a great job,” Gerona said. “I think they need to be cut a little slack.”
So don’t judge the residents of Ophir too harshly. With the blizzards, the lack of sunlight, the agitating winds, the unexpected issues and delays, just say to yourself: Before the grace of ice go I.