Our local weather often comes in alternate cycles of wet and dry. Sometimes we look up into the deep blue sky and see nothing but blue. Other times, unique and interesting clouds appear and indicate that the weather might change.
When it is bone dry outside with absolutely no humidity, a spectacular sun shiny day with stellar blue sky, followed by the starriest night you’ve ever seen, it’s fairly certain that weather is stable.
However, sometimes in the winter, lens-shaped lenticular clouds form often reminding me of flying saucers. Meanwhile, other clouds look like skis with curved-up tips or like long twisted braids of a wild horse’s tail. These clouds indicate high altitude wind, and usually mean that snowfall is coming in one or two days.
I do not find the mountains of Colorado to be a particularly windy place, however wind is often present at lower elevations just as a storm comes in. Also, storms that produce snow will often push warm air out in front. Suddenly we experience a slushy melt day with a mix of sun and clouds. Later, the cold wind kicks up as the storm hits, and the next morning you wake up to ten inches of fresh powder snow.
Wind also helps to move storms move out.If you want a storm to go away, wind will usually help to push it on through and bring in clear skies. If the wind isn’t blowing, the weather is probably not going to change.
Have you ever noticed on some days, that when jets fly overhead there are long white streamers lingering behind? These con-trails indicate high altitude moisture and are a sign of incoming moisture even when it feels dry to us down at ground level.
Other times we see a rainbow-like ring around the sun or moon. This effect is caused by light reflecting off of high altitude ice crystals. Is snow in your future?
One of my favorite indicators of snow is the so-called “snow bugs”. Also known as snow fleas, these tiny wintertime insects often hatch in warm solar pockets along trails such as in footprints in soft snow. These tiny insects look like ground black pepper in the white snow, but you can actually get them to hop. Snowfleas hatch on warm days just before an incoming snowstorm.
How about those early morning storms that kick in around 6 am snowing like crazy for a few hours dropping several inches as the rising sun mixes warmth with the cold night air. The saying goes, “In by seven, out by eleven.” I have found this to hold true and seemingly without any prior warning, the raging wind clears out the blinding snowstorm whisking in blue sky and sunshine by lunchtime.
Mountain weather is often highly localized. While one major valley may get hammered by snow, a neighboring valley may remain completely dry. Predicting the weather is contingent on interpreting the present conditions right where you stand. Have you ever gone, “Humph, I can see my breath but it’s not that cold out.” This tells us that there is a touch of humidity. Our climate is ordinarily super-dry with very little humidity. Any sign such as seeing your breath, or experiencing a chill where the damp air cuts through you, is a sign of moisture.
As far as being prepared, if you are going out into the backcountry, its best to be prepared for every kind of weather, because it changes so quickly.
Of course, we all know that weather professionals are often incorrect in their predictions even though they utilize radar and complex computer models. So why not trust yourself to predict the weather? Remember to look for the clues with your eyes and try to feel changes in the weather with your senses. These hunches are often the best way to predict the weather.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.