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GOTHIC — Unless the avalanche danger is unusually high, or there’s a major snowstorm in the forecast, Christmas comes once a week to the nine residents of Gothic, most of whom are scientists spending this winter at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab.
Today, Santa is Erik Stolz from the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association and instead of gifts, his Yamaha sled is heavy with supplies needed to fuel research important to understanding the impact of climate change on snowpack and water resources.
Researchers ski out to meet the resupply sleds carrying scientific equipment packed next to drinking water, bananas cradled in a nest of rice to keep them from bruising, crackers, boxes of oat milk and a pair of ski boots that had been sent into town for repair.
The sleds are reloaded for the trip back to town, carrying laboratory samples, garbage, dirty laundry and the occasional scientist who needs to tend to sampling equipment elsewhere in the Gunnison Valley.
LEFT: Erik Stolz , left, of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, helps support tech Jack Snow, center, and Ben Schmatz, right, unload a sled carrying supplies at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. Scientists spending the winter in Gothic must travel on skis or snowshoes to get to and from their work sites, residences and buildings. Gothic usually gets over 300 inches of snow. RIGHT: Frank Zurek, a scientist working on the SAIL research project, makes himself comfortable while riding in a sled pulled by Stolz. Skier Jeff Troyer is also hitching a ride after getting his turns down Snodgrass Mountain onto Gothic Road. Because of its remote location, CBMBA was given a special permit to use a snowmobile for the weekly resupply. (Dean Krakel, The Colorado Sun)
TOP: Erik Stolz, left, of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association, helps support tech Jack Snow, center, and Ben Schmatz, right, unload a sled carrying supplies at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. Scientists spending the winter in Gothic must travel on skis or snowshoes to get to and from their work sites, residences and buildings. Gothic usually gets over 300 inches of snow. BOTTOM: Frank Zurek, a scientist working on the SAIL research project, makes himself comfortable while riding in a sled pulled by Stolz. Skier Jeff Troyer is also hitching a ride after getting his turns down Snodgrass Mountain onto Gothic Road. Because of its remote location, CBMBA was given a special permit to use a snowmobile for the weekly resupply. (Dean Krakel, The Colorado Sun)
Gothic “is near but far,” said Erik Hulm, director of strategic projects for the lab, known as RMBL, which rolls off locals’ tongues as “rumble.” “Crested Butte sits at the end of the road and Gothic is just a bit farther. You can see Crested Butte Mountain from Gothic but it’s not like you can just get there.”
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Unlike other remote research sites scattered across the globe, RMBL has no support from snowcats, ships, helicopters or trucks. Hulm offers McMurdo Station in Antarctica as contrast. McMurdo has a harbor, land and sea landing strips, a helicopter pad, electricity, telephones, dormitories, clubs, warehouses, sewer and water lines and a fire station. There’s more, but you get the idea.
Gothic has “no spa or cafeteria,” Hulm said. “Researchers here are on their own. They cook their own meals, shovel their own snow from around residences and study sites. They have to constantly break trails to move between buildings and sometimes have to break miles of trail through deep snow to reach a work site. There is no repair facility to solve mechanical problems, nor a medical clinic for human repair.”
Everything, Hulm said, must be done by hand. Every piece of scientific equipment, large or small, from bolts to barrels to sample containers to cleaning supplies has to be brought in and taken out by someone or something. The personal needs of the scientists, enough clothing to make it through a long winter, every crumb of food they consume, even the laundry — all have to be brought in or carried out.
There are no shortcuts.
Before beginning the challenging snowmobile resupply trip into the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic, Stolz grooms the top of Teddy’s Trail for fat bikes and Nordic skiers. Teddy’s is one of the North Village winter trails near Crested Butte. (Photos by Dean Krakel, The Colorado Sun)
Stolz grooms the trail through the aspen groves. The Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association maintains nearly 500 miles of trails in the upper Gunnison Valley for use during the spring, summer and fall.
Stolz passes by researchers Danny Hogan, Eli Schwat and Frank Zurek as they ski past the SAIL and SPALSH research facilitie. Stolz was making a preliminary pass through Gothic to clear a route before returning with a resupply sled.
Old silver camp has become an intensely studied ecosystem
Nestled beneath its namesake peak, 8 miles north of Crested Butte, at an altitude of 9,485 feet and not far from the headwaters of the East River, Gothic started in 1879 as a silver mining town. In its prime, the town had 1,000 residents, a post office and nearly 400 other buildings, and a newspaper, The Gothic Miner. The silver played out in the 1890s and Gothic faded into ghost town obscurity until 1928, when it became the headquarters of the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab.
Since then, the collection of antique log and wooden buildings that is the RMBL has provided logistical support, housing, laboratories and research sites for thousands of scientists and hundreds of study projects. That scientific density has made the high mountain country surrounding Gothic one of the most intensely studied ecosystems in the world.
Summers, the gravel road leading from Crested Butte to Gothic brings a steady, dusty stream of tourists gawking at the brilliant wildflower-filled meadows. Autumn brings hordes of leaf lookers to the West Elk Mountains to view the spectacular golden aspen groves.
But when snow begins to fall, all but a few of the scientists and support staff who have been working and living in Gothic go back home and the road closes to motorized traffic for winter. The only way to visit Gothic from late October to mid-May most years is on skis, snowshoes or a bicycle and that’s true for the handful of scientists, assistants and residents who stick out the winter.
Stolz passes through the historic mining town of Gothic. In the late 1870s, Gothic was a booming silver mine town that boasted a newspaper, post office and 1,000 residents. Today it is populated mainly by researchers working at RMBL, which locals call “rumble.” (Dean Krakel, The Colorado Sun)
I told them not to bring shoes.
— Jack Snow, support technician in Gothic, referring to his visiting family
The winter environment at the lab can be brutally cold with subzero temperatures lingering for days on end and snowfall measured in the hundreds of inches. As of March 16, Gothic had received 275 inches of snow. So far.
Because of the extreme mountain terrain around the town, scientists and support staff take avalanche education courses.
Everything, even moving around the site, is done on backcountry skis.
“It helps if a scientist coming to Gothic already knows how to ski,” Hulm said.
Support technician Jack Snow’s family is coming to visit. None of them knows how to cross-country ski, but that’s the only way to negotiate 3 miles of snowy road to reach him. Their heaviest winter boots would be useless in Gothic, for if they stepped outdoors they would punch through snow up to their hips.
“I told them not to bring shoes,” he said.
Earlier this winter, their first at the lab, Snow and his partner, Sophia Todorov, didn’t plan well enough with their supply of Oreo cookies.
“We ran out,” Todorov said.
The pair visited Gothic’s most famous resident, Billy Barr, who prefers you spell his name with lowercase letters. He came to Gothic in 1972 as a Rutgers University undergraduate helping with a water chemistry project. Barr stayed on after the project ended, reveling in the solitude and wild beauty around him. An amateur scientist and incredibly curious about his surroundings, Barr began keeping meticulous daily notes about the weather. Today, those journals are of high interest to climate change researchers.
Barr gave Snow and Todorov a box of his cookies, a neighborly reprimand and advice for proper rationing. “Only three cookies a day,” Barr said.
Wrangling winter recreation led to the resupply service
In the not-so-distant past, a cookie run would have required Snow and Todorov to ski out of Gothic and find their way to Crested Butte. Now, they and the other residents of Gothic, Barr included, can have supplies delivered by the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association’s snowmobile crew.
The mountain bike association, established in 1983, maintains roughly 480 miles of trails in the upper Gunnison Valley. “Trails for all users,” emphasizes Executive Director David Ochs, “from national forest hiking trails, to nonmotorized singletrack to motorized trails.”
During the winter of 2015-16, Ochs initiated a series of community dialogues about developing, maintaining and grooming winter trails around the upper Gunnison Valley. Although such trails would be developed to meet the rising demand for fat biking in the valley (fat bikes roll on extra-wide tires that can handle the snowy conditions a typical mountain bike can’t) the trails would also be groomed for Nordic skiers. Snowshoers — “although we don’t have many of those in this community,” he said — and hikers could also benefit from the groomed trails.
Although most of Crested Butte’s residents were in favor of grooming some of the area’s trails for winter use, Gothic Road, a popular in-and-out cross-country ski route, had been designated for nonmotorized use by the management of Gunnison National Forest.
“Grooming Gothic Road was a hot point,” Ochs said. “Gothic was like the forbidden corridor.”
At day’s end, after returning from a resupply and trail grooming trip into the lab, Stolz grooms one of the North Village winter trails near Crested Butte. In the winter, CBMBA grooms about 15 miles of winter trail for fat bikes, Nordic skiers, hikers and snowshoers. (Photos by Dean Krakel, The Colorado Sun)
Erik Stolz of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association shifts his weight to keep his snowmobile upright and on track.
Recreational skiers, snowshoers, hikers and RMBL scientists had been creating their own winter trails into Gothic over the years and many people thought opening the road to motorized winter use would destroy the beauty and solitude of a beloved place.
“But Gothic Road was unmanaged and unruly,” Ochs said. “People were everywhere.”
Ochs argued that grooming would help contain users to a specific route. The mountain bike association wasn’t making a case for opening Gothic Road to all motorized use, just to Ochs and a snowmobile that would groom the trail whenever conditions were deemed appropriate. Grooming would make Gothic more accessible for visitors, Ochs contended, and provide a positive nonmotorized experience for everyone.
“We were all on the same page,” Ochs said. “We didn’t want machines out there either.”
During the next winter, Ochs received permission and a permit to groom a trail into Gothic for fat bikers and Nordic skiers. That same winter some universities working on larger climate research projects began focusing on RMBL. Grooming the trail would allow the lab to easily piggyback supplies — and the occasional scientist — into Gothic.
Ochs found that getting a permit to groom Gothic Road was a bit like catching an alligator: OK. Now what?
Stolz clears snow off a mat to make it lighter while he grooms a winter trail. The mat is pulled behind a snowmachine to break up and flatten the snow, meaning it must be just the right weight so that it makes the fat bike and Nordic ski tracks the proper depth. (Dean Krakel, The Colorado Sun)
Studying snow requires learning to live with snow
The 3-mile road can be incredibly challenging to negotiate for a snowmobile with a groomer or supply sled attached. Grooming nearly always involves work with snow shovels to help clear the path. Sometimes, when a snowmachine gets stuck, additional hours and physical labor are required to get several hundred pounds of metal unstuck and on the move again.
Snowstorms frequently bury the road and groomed trails. Warm temperatures can turn the trails into a soupy, nearly impassable mess. In addition, most of Gothic Road passes beneath the steep avalanche terrain of Snodgrass and Gothic peaks and the snow sweeping down from their summits makes travel potentially dangerous. It can bury the road beneath many feet of snow and debris.
“Every storm is different. We are not in control,” Ochs said. “We just watch the weather and take every precaution.”
Two years ago on the return trip from Gothic, the resupply snowmobile passed beneath an avalanche that had been triggered by backcountry skiers. One skier had been caught and buried. The trailhead parking lot was lit up with emergency vehicles when Ochs’s crew arrived. In growing darkness, the mountain bike association team carried rescuers back into the danger zone and helped bring the injured skier out.
Most often though, resupply drama is limited to maintaining and grooming an especially fickle trail. This winter’s constant wave of snowstorms has been especially daunting. No sooner is the road groomed than a new storm undoes the work.
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“It’s utterly demoralizing,” Ochs said. “Our groomed trails are getting freaking hammered.” Then he shrugs. “Hit or miss. It’s the nature of the business. I say, when it’s good, it’s good. When it’s bad, go skiing.”
Currently Ochs and the mountain bike crew are helping RMBL resupply some of the largest ongoing climate study projects in the world: SOS, SAIL and SPLASH.
SOS, Hulm said, stands for Sublimation of Snow, the study of snow’s transformation from solid to vapor-like dry ice rather than becoming runoff. SAIL is a Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory that consists of a mobile observatory containing instruments that measure precipitation, clouds, aerosols, winds, temperature and humidity. SPLASH is the Study of Precipitation, Lower Atmosphere and Surface Hydrometeorology — in other words, instruments that measure temperature, winds, humidity, precipitation, clouds, turbulence, snow cover, soil moisture, snow reflectivity and so much more.
When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s bad, go skiing.
— David Ochs, executive director of Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association
In addition to those projects, Leipzig University in Germany has instruments in Gothic capable of measuring a falling snowflake, determining its moisture content and cataloging its changing shape as it falls to Earth.
What is the importance of all this science study during the winter months? Especially when Gothic is so isolated, conditions so harsh and support so limited?
It’s all about hydrology, Hulm said. “Seventy-five percent of our runoff starts as snow. When snow melts, where is it coming from and where is it going?”
The work measuring runoff from below the Earth’s surface into the atmosphere is the first and largest climate study of its kind in the world, Hulm said.
“This is one little watershed in the Colorado Rockies, but its data is representative, data we can transfer that is as relevant to the Andes and Alps as well as the Rocky Mountains,” Hulm said.
“Mountains are the water towers of the world. If you want to understand water, you have to study snow.”
Story and photography by Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun