Tom Ross: It’s a good sign when the snow sticks to the backs of cows |

Tom Ross: It’s a good sign when the snow sticks to the backs of cows

— I learned something new about snow early Sunday morning as I drove north up the Elk River Valley on winding Routt County Road 129.

All of the red and black cows in the fields still had a coat of snow on their backs. And I couldn't help but feel a little sorry for the dumb beasts. I wondered (for about the 500th time) how they manage to survive outdoors overnight.

When I arrived at a friend's ranch, he straightened me out. The snow that persisted on the backs of the cattle actually was a good sign that they had enjoyed quality feed through the autumn and carried a nice layer of insulating back fat through the winter.

There's always something to be learned about snow and the peculiar climate of the Yampa Valley — and how the locals survive it.

For the human denizens of the valley, fresh skiing conditions help us survive, and we've certainly had that in March. With 15 inches of snow at mid-mountain in the past five days, 46 inches for the month to date and 20 days remaining before the end of the season, the Steamboat Ski Area has jumped past the average season snowfall amount of 309 inches. The total as of Monday morning stood at 313.25 inches.

March was the first full month of ski season that didn't get off to a slow start and end with a sprint to the finish.

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As another acquaintance observed last week, no two winters in Steamboat are alike. Hang around long enough, and you'll be able to say that you've seen snow fall from the sky over Steamboat in every month of the year.

So, if you arose to subzero temperatures and a world of snow Monday morning and felt a certain disconnect to the latest forecasts of a second straight summer of extreme drought, you're not alone.

A significant reason for the drought forecast continues to be the extent to which soil moisture was depleted in the summer of 2012 and the drawdown of reservoirs in the region. Conditions have certainly improved; the moisture stored in the snowpack across the combined White and Yampa rivers basins now stands at 81 percent of average. However, two of the mountain passes we look to — Rabbit Ears Pass at 77 percent of average and the Tower site on Buffalo Pass at 75 percent of average — still are struggling.

Here's another snow observation from North Routt — the standing snow in the hay meadows near Clark is about 2 feet deep and bulletproof. The mild temperatures of early March clearly rendered the snowpack wet all the way to the ground, but now it's frozen so solidly that it will support the weight of a man. I could not have punched a hole in the snow with my boot if I wanted to.

That same snow meadow in North Routt already had melted free of snow by this date in 2012. And that raises some hope that in the summer of 2013, rivers will run cold and clear and the hay crop will be abundant.

It could happen.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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