The Blizzard of 2003

It was 2003 and we needed the moisture, so I was glad to learn that snow was in the weather forecast. Our part of the state got most of its precipitation in March and April, so I was optimistic. I should have been more precise about what I wished for. My wife had flown to Los Angles a couple of days before for business, and I looked forward to hiking or snowshoeing with our three dogs and relaxing.

Our Colorado Rocky Mountain Blizzard Story

On March 17th snow began falling in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. At 7,000 feet in the foothills, our house was predicted to receive eight to ten inches. The snow might be all we’d get that winter, so I was looking forward to it. I took our three dogs for a walk and watched them chasing each other through the evergreens.

After lunch, I noticed that the snow was coming down harder. Maybe I’d clear the driveway with the snow thrower to be on the safe side. The weather forecast remained the same. The walk-behind snow thrower made short work of our circular drive. One more pass just before dusk ought to take care of the rest. After lunch, I shoveled the walkway and noticed that the morning path I’d made in the drive was filling as snow kept falling.

Chores occupied the rest of the afternoon. I brought in some firewood that I’d cut and split the year before and started dinner. An hour before sunset I cleared the drive with our little snow thrower, shoveled the walkway for the dogs, had dinner, and turned in early. My wife called on the land line, and we talked briefly. She complained about the traffic and difficulty parking. She didn’t love L.A., but work was work. I couldn’t relate but said little regarding her talk about traffic, because she was experiencing beautiful, sunny weather. Tomorrow I’d drive down to Denver and buy a few supplies. But God had other plans.

March 18- Lots More Snow

The morning of March 18th saw more falling snow, lots more. It must have fallen all night, completely erasing yesterday’s efforts at snow management. Looking out the window after first light, I noticed that visibility had dropped. Shoveling the walkway, I felt the temperature dropping. Clearing a hasty path for our big dogs, I returned indoors to eat a huge breakfast. The 19 inches of snow blanketing our tiny town made it eerily quiet.

The snow thrower started hard but warmed enough to clear the drive and let me scurry inside before the wind sucked more heat out of me. The snow thrower was struggling to keep up with the snowfall. I’d have to repeat my efforts later. The afternoon brought higher winds and more snow—so much for the weather pundits. I let the dogs out. They pushed through the deep snow, did their business, and ran back to the door. This wasn’t like them; usually they loved chasing each other and playing in snow.

Stomping snow off my boots, I returned inside and thanked God for central heating. The weather report predicted the foothills would receive 24 inches of snow. Huh, we must have that much now. Driving the truck was no longer an option. I put my snowshoes near the front door. The combination of sub-zero temperatures and hard shoveling had tired me to the point that I fell asleep. Waking up, I looked out the window and was surprised to see no sign of my day’s work. All was white. Dispirited, I didn’t bother working more to clear the drive but quickly shoveled the walkway for the dogs.

March 19- Dark and Silent

March 19th dawned dark. Struggling awake, I noticed it wasn’t just quiet; it was silent. Getting up I noticed the house was cool. Turning on the coffee maker did nothing, so I flicked a light switch. There was nothing. A power failure was no way to start the day. I donned a sweater, loaded kindling and cord wood into both wood stoves, and lighted them. The thermostat said the inside temperature was 57 degrees. But the big, black stoves were throwing off substantial heat. The dogs didn’t seem to notice the inside temperature.

Opening the door revealed three feet of snow and wind blowing it sideways. The day was spent moving more firewood indoors and eating enough food to make up for the calories consumed. Our deep pantry was a Godsend. My wife called telling me that she’d seen the news that Denver International Airport was closed due to the weather. She wanted to know what was going on in the foothills. I explained that it was a beautiful winter wonderland, a Christmas card, and that she’d understand when DIA reopened. She’d parked her car at the airport, so at least she’d be able to drive to our local post office. According to the news, the major road had been cleared of snow.

I turned on hot water and discovered that the gas water heater was working, so I showered and went back to stoking the stoves. The temperature was climbing nicely. The wind was howling and creating massive snowdrifts. I grabbed a yardstick, went out and pushed it into a drift past my glove. It read 40 inches and growing by the hour. I opened the door. The dogs balked, so I pushed them outside. A minute later they barked in protest. The wind was too much for them. These canines had seen several harsh winters in the foothills, so their behavior was unusual.

March 20- Blue Skies and Sunshine

March 20th brought blue skies and sunshine, which was a big relief. I let the housebound dogs out, but they didn’t like the five feet of snow they saw. Strapping on snowshoes, I grabbed my Stihl chainsaw and set off to see if trees were downed, blocking our road. They were. I sectioned them, and pushed ‘em off the road. The silence told me that even the larger roads carried no traffic. I’d cleared our road so the snowplows could get through, but the silence said I’d wasted my time. I continued on the road and saw a neighbor who informed me that two of the county’s three five-ton snowplows were broken down. There went any possible hope of getting out today. Even if the big plows had been working, the driveway remained impassable.

Hiking home, I ate and took the food from the fridge and placed it in a snow-bank just outside the door. Stoking the woodstoves, eating huge meals, and shoveling a place for the dogs to do their business killed the afternoon. A portable radio was my only source for news and weather, so I left it on most of the day. DIA remained closed, so I chose to be content with resting until the big rigs could plow our little town roads.

March 23- Sunny and Wife Returns

March 23rd broke sunny, and the mercury began to climb. I was feeding the wood stoves less often but maintaining the temperature. As I was eating lunch, my wife phoned to say that the airport was now open and she would be landing in the afternoon. I asked her to meet me at the post office. She asked why, and I said that she’d see when she got here. She didn’t like my reply, but I found it difficult to describe what she’d soon encounter. While Denver received about three feet of snow, we’d gotten about five.

At the agreed time I put on snowshoes, grabbed her snowshoes and poles, and met her at the P.O. She looked puzzled but put on the snowshoes and began hiking home. As we turned onto our road, she inhaled. “Wow” was all she said. Seeing our food in the snowdrift, she realized what I’d been experiencing for days. We grabbed a sled and rope and hiked to her car and pointed it downhill. We bought the last generator in the nearest open store and drove back to the post office. Lowering the generator onto the sled, we pulled it with the rope. It was routine until we reached our steep driveway. I tied the rope around my waist to pull the generator while she pushed from the rear. After jury-rigging it to our electrical panel, we had power for the first time in days. Life got better fast.

Days later I discovered that friends at 9,000 feet got more than seven feet of snow. I can’t imagine the height of their snowdrifts. The storm was reported as the worst blizzard of the last century.

Lessons Learned

  • Weather reports, though increasingly accurate, can be off-the-chart wrong.
  • A deep pantry can be even deeper. One cannot have too much food in sub-zero weather.
  • In the mountains, a backup generator is a must, not a nice accessory.
  • Snowshoes are not solely for recreation. I carry a spare pair and gaiters in my truck.
  • Land lines are not obsolete. They worked when others wouldn’t.
  • Even big dogs cannot make headway through five feet of snow.
  • Having a smart, strong, and capable wife is a blessing.

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ROBERT S. SMITH
Robert lives in Santa Fe. Colorado. It's where he continues to prep himself and others for what's to come. He teaches survival courses since 1985. After working as a consultant for various Survival Tv Shows, Robert decided to move his practice online and start collecting his stories and skill sets into preparedness lessons for real life emergency scenarios, and especially, for real people. His articles on bushcraft and outdoor skills have been published in national magazines and will be the subject of his next book: The Proper Prepper. When he is not doing that, Robert is happily working on his farm. Which is not only a hobby, but the way he chose to live his life.