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Mountain News: Hoots and hollers about ski season



ASPEN, Colo. — When did meteorologists become folk heroes? The answer from Aspen seems to be when ski towns are on the cusp of El Niño winters.

Cory Gates, a meteorologist with, laid out his expectations at his company's first-ever winter-outlook party on Monday.

The Aspen Times reports the event drew 150 people and, as the good news was reported, the crowd clapped, cheered, and whistled.

With absolute confidence Gates predicted an El Niño winter. His collaborating meteorologist, Ryan Boudreau, said snowfall would, at the very worst, be normal. That alone makes it better than last year. says Snowmass could get 360 inches of snow this year, 31 inches more than the annual average.

But the story is on the edges. As other meteorologist have warned, mid-winter itself could be a dud.

Wider wingspans and direct flights from Paris

ASPEN, Colo. — How soon will it be possible for somebody to fly directly from Paris to Aspen?

The answer seems to be 12 years from now, when the runway at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport gets completed.

Commercial aircraft are being modified, with CRJ700 regional jets, which serve the majority of Aspen's commercial service, being phased out beginning in 2018. By 2025, the entire fleet is expected to be grounded. Aspen hopes to have its airport improvements finished by 2027.

The changes will accommodate the newer generation of jets with wider wings. The airport now can accommodate a maximum wingspan of 95 feet (29 metres), explains The Aspen Times. Local officials, tapping federal money, want to be sure to accommodate the wider wingspans of new planes. That new maximum would be 115 feet (35 metres).

Rick Carroll, writing for The Times, explains that owners of a new generation of private jets will also benefit. The airport currently can accommodate a Gulfstream V G550, which seats 19 passengers and can travel 10,800 kilometres. It costs $50 million.

A newer model, the G650, can fly a bit farther, 11,260 kilometres, or all the way from Paris, and can carry more weight and can travel a bit faster. It also costs more, $65 million.

With billionaires by the dozen, Aspen has plenty of visitors and part-time residents able to cough up $65 million for a private plane. John Kinney, airport director, says he's learned of prospective orders from people with local connections for 33 jets.

Survey finds wolverines in western Wyoming

JACKSON, Wyo. — Several years ago a wolverine wandered down to Colorado from Wyoming, where a few of its species had been seen in recent years in the mountains near Jackson Hole.

The animal somehow managed to dodge the trucks that sometimes seem to run bumper-to-bumper on I-80, ferrying goods from China eastward across North America. The lone male then made its way into Colorado, where it was photographed in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The wolverine was a wanderer. With radio-telemetry devices, says Eric Odell, carnivores species conservation program manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, wildlife biologists know the wolverine crossed Interstate 70 three or four times before disappearing to who knows where.

Evidence that wolverines are plentiful? No, but a multi-year research initiative in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Washington that seeks to map the distribution of wolverines south of the Canadian border finds at least a few wolverines in the Yellowstone area of northwestern Wyoming. Before, except in the Tetons, the area was a question mark.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide reports that 18 infrared cameras were set out in high-elevation areas of Wyoming in what is called the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Five of the 18 stations turned up evidence of wolverines, including several in the Wind River Range as well as other mountain ranges in Wyoming's northwest corner.

Kim Heinemeyer, of Round River Conservation Studies, warns about making assumptions about the how the species is doing.

"If you hear rhetoric currently, it's often that wolverines are doing fine or expanding because you get these males that disperse long distances and end up in Colorado, or the Uintas (of Utah) or California," she said in a talk in Jackson recently. "But those are just single male animals of a species that do big dispersals."

The wolverine has been proposed as a species for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The thinking was that the wolverine needed protection, because it depends upon snowy areas for spring denning to raise young. Areas covered by snow during spring are expected to decline in coming decades as global temperatures rise.

Forest Service frowns on high-elevation gardening

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Cannabis became legal in Colorado two years ago, but it's not legal everywhere — and especially on national forest lands. According to U.S law, it's still illegal.

While federal officials have been willing to turn a blind eye toward Colorado's closely regulated industry, that tolerance doesn't extend to furtive grow operations on federal lands. Colorado newspapers last week reported growers at two sites were busted by federal agents.

One site was near Buffalo Pass, north of Steamboat Springs, where federal agents found 926 marijuana plants, but also a loaded .22-caliber pistol that had been reported stolen two years previously in metropolitan Denver, a machete, and two knives.

All this occurred at about 2,740 metres, and the plants appeared to be a metre tall, Steamboat Today reported. Could the plants have reached maturity before the first frost? Hard to say, and the newspaper didn't conjecture.

The other site was at 3,000 metres, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado.

Aviation team hopes to glide at 27,400 metres

BEND, Ore. — Can you imagine being 27,400 metres in the sky, on the edge of the outer atmosphere in nothing more than a glider? In Central Oregon, a team working out of an airport near Bend wants to think this can be done by next year.

The world's existing fixed-wing altitude record of 15,460 metres was set by former NASA test pilot Einar Enevoldson — the founder of the Perlan Project — and his co-pilot and noted adventurer, Steve Fossett. That was in 2006.

A successful businessman until his early retirement to Beaver Creek, Fossett set a number of edge-of-impossible records before a plane he was piloting several years ago slammed into a mountainside near the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.

In this next project, called Perlan 2, coordinator Doug Perrenod tells the Bend Bulletin that the intent for this new glider is to go higher than any other fixed-wing aircraft with a pilot in it. "That includes the Air Force's U-2 (spy plane). It really will be on the edge of space."

While aircrafts that go into higher altitudes must have pressurized systems, the Perlan Project has developed its own life-support system, a "re-breather" system similar to what is used for underwater diving.

Perrenod said that if his team accomplishes everything it seeks to do, the plane will eventually be in the Smithsonian exhibit in Washington D.C.

The glider will make as many as 20 flights in Oregon this fall to test air breaks and different maneuvers and so forth. In December, according to current plans, the testing will be moved to Nevada, where higher flights to above 15,240 metres will occur this winter. Then, next March or April, everything will be moved to Argentina and the effort to rise to 27,400 metres.

"We may not get it done the first day or the first week," Perrenod said. It took Enevoldson and Fossett a few years to attain their record, he added. "It was one success against several failures."

Fire and rain. What's next in California?

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — The stories coming out of California are about fire and rain. First the flames:

The Los Angeles Times reports that insurance rates for homes located near wildlands have increased sharply as insurance companies become increasingly wary of fire-risk areas. Factors fuelling fears of insurers include both the drought and some huge recent blazes.

The Times tells of one family, located near Yosemite National Park, whose annual insurances costs doubled this year to $51,000. This increase was despite efforts by the owners to plant a 15-metre lawn buffer around the house and install fire-resistant landscaping.

One insurance agent says clients who own homes in mountainous areas pay 30 to 40 per cent more than their counterparts with property in areas that are less vulnerable to wildland fires.

But will it stay dry? After four years, that seems like the new normal. But El Niños can produce drenching rains, and does that mean flooding ahead?

The Sacramento Bee reports that the number of federal flood insurance policies active in California has fallen by 30,000, or 12 per cent, since the drought began in 2012. The newspaper cited data from the National Flood Insurance Program.

As strange as it sounds, says the Bee, California could see extensive flooding this year. A strong El Niño weather pattern is expected that could bring heavy rains.

The number of active flood insurance policies fell nationwide from 2012 to 2015, but not as sharply as in California.