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  • Writer's pictureRichard A. Jones

Blizzards and Bus Trips

Walking the Same Ground

“Blizzards and Bus Trips”

Some years ago, blizzards with blowing snow, zero visibility, huge drifts, and roads closed, seemed to be more common. Maybe this is because of the county’s limited snow equipment back then, but most likely, it is my editing of my own memory.




However, I am including a couple of pictures in my defense. One is of Kettle just north of Schoolfield. The other is of Harvey and Jean Rusks driveway.

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Lyla Hobby, who lived at the upper end of Junctions Park, told me of the winter of 1959-60 when some areas in the county received six feet of snow in just a few days, and Fort Carson had to air drop feed for some cattle. Following that winter, Ken Armstrong decided to drill a couple of new wells to insure water for his cattle.

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The greatest accumulation of snow often comes with Spring storms. One year we got four feet on May first, and in 2003, when we were living out Brush Hollow, we got about five feet of snow the first of April. Of course, snow depth depends on where you live. There can be four inches in Westcliffe and a foot and a half in Rosita.

Earnest Sparling told me of one huge wet Spring snow he remembered. He didn’t say what year it was, but the Westcliffe Feed Store was still in operation. They took a stick and scraped around the truck scale to weigh the snow. It came in at a whopping eleven tons, 22,000 pounds of snow.

Earnest also told me of a blizzard that hit the Boneyard Park area where he lived. Someone had tethered a horse in a barn stall. When they left the barn, they didn’t get the door completely closed. That night the wind howled, as we know it can, and the next day they found the horse dead. It couldn’t get its head above the snow, and it had been completely buried by drifted snow that had funneled through the partially open door.

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The Southern Utes called them Chinooks—”the snow eating winds.” Not only do these winds “eat” snow, they can swirl it a hundred feet into the air, pile it up several feet high in one place, snap power poles and trees like twigs, and create a white-out making it impossible to see anything.

I have heard that Charlie Tomsick’s father died in a blizzard on Hoza Flats while trying to walk across the prairie to get home. A mile or two, isn’t far, but in a white-out all sense of direction is lost.

When snow blows, it can sweep a road clean in some places and pile snow three feet deep in others. One December evening, Barb and I had gotten stuck in a big drift on Kettle Lane about a mile North of Stan and Jean Coleman’s. After digging for an hour, we were able to get out and pull onto Riley Lane (County Rd. 136).

About that time, we saw headlights heading South on Kettle, and I knew it had to be Stan and Jean headed home. I flagged down the old yellow International Travel-all and warned Stan of what was ahead. Stan decided that his International was a match for anything. He backed up about forty yards, floored it, and hit the drift. Snow flew and the Travel-all disappeared.

When the white cloud settled, the score was snow—1, Coleman—0. We had to dig down a foot into the snow to even get Jeannie’s door open. Fortunately the next headlights we saw belonged to the County plow. He pulled Stan’s international out, broke through the drift, and we all went on our way.

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I believe it was 1975. Macey Lane had drifted shut, and the temperature dropped to -30. The drifts were so hard, I drove my Jeep over the top of them without sinking in. The county plow just bounced off the drifts, and Floyd Kattnig (our county road boss) had to bring in a D-8 bulldozer to open the road.

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School did not close for snow often, but sometimes the wind made it impossible for some teachers and students to get to town. While it could be completely calm in Rosita, the wind could be horrendous in other parts of the county.

When the wind blew down off of Reiser Prairie, tall drifts were common on Kettle Lane between Hermit Road and Schoolfield. Charles and Delores Koch lived at the North End of this stretch of Kettle. Stan and Jean Coleman lived at the South end, and Barb and I were in between.

When Kettle had blown shut, Barb would watch to see if the school bus came down the Rosita Road. Since we did not have a telephone, she hoped that Stanley was watching too. Usually, he was. On these days, Stan would show up on a snowmobile, pick Barb up, and take her to where she could catch the bus.

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The old high school football field was located where the new gym and parking lot are now. Vehicles would line the hill on the South side of the field to watch the game. When we all sat on our truck tailgates or stood in front of our vehicles, on a chilly October night, I always thought that we would have made a good Carhartt commercial.

I can remember a few times that the football field had to be plowed before the Friday night game could be played. Snow would be piled six to eight feet high surrounding the field, and these piles would become the seats for the student cheering section.

25 years ago, in early November, we were staying in a motel in Denver when a storm hit which turned our planned one night stay into four days. The snow caved the roof in over the motel’s swimming pool. The airport and I-25, as well as many secondary roads, were shut down.

CDOT estimated that 700 cars were stranded between the Wyoming and New Mexico Borders and a few people died that night. When we finally left Denver, four days later, we counted 70 vehicles on the shoulder of !-25. The only things visible on many of them were the roof and the radio antenna.

Custer County’s football team was scheduled to play a playoff football game in Westcliffe. The game was postponed a couple of days and I believe that was one of the times that piles of snow doubled as bleachers.

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When the High School basketball teams played in LaVeta, we usually cut through on the Yellowstone Road rather than take the longer route through Walsenburg. It was a dirt road, but then, so was a long stretch of Highway 69, the Cotopaxi cutoff, and the High Park Road to Cripple Creek. Most travel required some dirt road.

There was one little bridge on the Yellowstone that had a weight limit which the school bus exceeded. However, there was a pull around through the dry creek bed, which we “almost” always took. But, if Norm Jordan (Stormin’ Norman) was driving, we sometimes bypassed the creek bed and hit the bridge running. It never failed us.

I believe it was 1982 or 1983. I was coaching the girls’ basketball team. It was late December, and we had made the trip through the Yellowstone to play Laveta.

Although the road was clear, there was a lot of snow stacked along the sides. During the game, the wind became ferocious. Larry Villers (our principal) and the fans had all chosen the Walsenburg route for the trip home. However, that night, Norman was driving, and he wasn’t about to let a little snow and wind stand between him and a short cut.

Only a few miles in, we encountered a drift. The surface had that familiar fuzzy white blur which made it impossible to determine its length or depth. Norm got out of the bus to confront the white beast. The howling wind taunted him, and seemed to be saying, “I dare you.” Norm took the dare. He returned to the bus, backed up about fifty yards, and hit the gas.

We collided with the drift with such force that snow flew over the windshield and the top of the bus. Right after that, we heard that sickening “fwumpf” which signaled us that we were stuck. We were too far into the drift to back

up, so we got everyone off and decided to attempt to push the bus ahead through the drift.

With much grunting and groaning, we rocked the bus until it began to inch forward. As it gained momentum, we kept pushing until the bus had cleared the drift and we felt dirt under our feet. Norm expertly guided us through several smaller drifts until we arrived safely in Westcliffe.

The only casualty was a broken window on the rear emergency door of the bus, bearing witness to our efforts that night.

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On the High Park Road to Cripple Creek, there was a steep hill which always caused the bus trouble when it snowed. However, experience had taught us how to deal with it. As soon as we felt the bus tires begin to slip, everyone rushed to the back of the bus to add weight over the tires and give them more traction. If this didn’t work, we began to bounce up and down until the bus lurched its way to the top of the hill.

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In the winter of 1977-78, we made our usual trip to Fairplay to play South Park. The road was partly snow packed, and the ditches were filled with snow level with the road. On the way home, after the game, Francie Byrne hit an icy patch, slipped off the road, and buried her car. A few minutes later, we came by in the team bus. We exited the bus, surrounded the car, and lifted it back onto the road.

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The next year, we were playing Platte Canyon in Bailey. During the boys’ game, the State Patrol came to the gym and informed us that they might be closing Kenosha Pass, and we should find someplace to stay for the night. Dick Willson, the boys’ coach, and I had called our wives, and they were making calls in Westcliffe to let people know that we might not be home until noon the next day.

We were on our way to a camp just outside Bailey to spend the night when Bob Miller, our bus driver, saw a semi that had just come over the pass. He got on the CB and asked the truck driver if we could still make it over.

He said that if we left right now, he thought we could. Bob headed the bus for home, and we took off.

When we made it over the pass, there were some bare spots on the road. George Reis had put chains on before he left Bailey, and he was in front of the bus. Whenever he hit bare pavement, we could see the sparks fly from the chains.

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Before Bull Domingo Ranch subdivision, Mac Clevenger owned everything out Copper Gulch Road to Reed Road (or Reed Gulch, as Earl Cress would remind me).

There were no houses, so in winter, the road crew would quit fighting the snow and just close Copper Gulch. In 1979, Jeff McGregor was the music teacher at the school, and he and his wife Peggy were renting one of the few house past Reed Gulch.

They were in town when it started snowing and blowing hard. By 8:00 P.M., only one lane of Highway 69 was still open. Jeff called me to see if I thought they should try to get home. Although I advised against it, they said that they would call when they got there. In two hours they still had not called, so Mark Hanley and I chained up my pickup and headed out to look for them.

Just as we were ready to turn on Copper Gulch, we noticed some barely visible foot prints crossing the highway. We turned left and went past Elton Camper’s, following the trail. When we got to Nellie Camper’s house we found Jeff and Peggy inside enjoying Nellie’s hospitality.

With visibility being zero, they had run off the road at the curve by the old Entz homestead. The only way they made it out was to keep walking between the fences on the sides of the road. Had they gone past the Entz place, there would have been no fences at all, and the night could have ended a lot worse.

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They don’t call it Blizzardine for nothing. In the late 70’s when a family built their house above Doc Boyers ranch, and above Katie’s cabin, many had warned them that winter would pose a problem. The wife of the couple was a substitute teacher and the next few winters were very mild. She reminded us all of our warnings, and told us that they had no problem because of snow.

The next winter, that would all change. Snow and wind came early that year and it did not let up. Many days, she had to ride a snowmobile about eight miles just to get to her vehicle. I think they moved when Spring came.

A few years later the man who had bought the house went into Blizzardine in late October with a two-wheel-drive pickup truck. Of course snow and wind had blocked the road, and he was thoroughly stuck.

It was Fred Jobe’s first year as sheriff, and the lot fell to him to get the man out. Fred had asked me to go with him, and in order to even get close, we had to drive the ridge tops on the Boyer ranch where the snow had blown off. The man came out with us. His pickup did not come out until Spring.

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More stories could be told, and more storms will come. The county now has a whole fleet of plows and trucks with which to do battle. However, winter at 8000’ is always unpredictable. Some new people to the Valley brag that they have a four-wheel-drive. Mother Nature simply smiles and says, “Yes, and sometimes all that means is that you will be twice as stuck.”








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