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Negative 40 – living at the deep end of the thermometer in the San Luis Valley

What does one do when it is -40 degrees Fahrenheit outside like it has been in the San Luis Valley for the past several weeks? 

“Be prepared,” said life-long Valley resident, farmer and rancher Alan Simpson. “It takes four times longer to accomplish anything.”

Fellow rancher LeRoy Martinez agrees, “When you know it’s going to get this cold you have to do everything you can to manage it.”

Why is it so damned cold in the San Luis Valley in the first place? The Valley floor sits at about 7,500 feet above sea level and is surrounded by mountain ranges with high peaks on three sides. When the cold air sinks into the Valley, the warmer air rises up the sides of the mountains which hold the cold air against the Valley floor. Once this temperature inversion occurs, it is difficult to reverse, so we settle in for a long, cold winter. 

As a result, Simpson and Martinez, and many others, fatten up cattle in the fall, so they have the fat stores to maintain their weight and health throughout the winter. They also put heaters on equipment, check the cows and sheep 24-7, especially when they start to calve or lamb in mid-January, and lay out straw or other bedding. 

“Day after day for thirty days, the routine can be really hard,” Simpson said. “You don’t think about it, you just do what needs to be done. Otherwise, you’d never get out of bed.”

However, the cold and snow aren’t all work and no play for people in the San Luis Valley. There is plenty of fun with a few precautions. 

Alamosa Parks and Recreation program formed a hockey league and because kids are more susceptible to cold, parents and coaches decided all games and practices are either delayed or cancelled if the temperature falls below +5 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The San Juan Nordic Club (sjnordic.wordpress.com/about/) has groomed trails at Cattails Golf Course in Alamosa and the Monte Vista City Golf Course, because the snow has not melted and is still good for cross-country skiing. “It’s fabulous to ski right in your own backyard,” said Erin Minks. Sled, snowmobile, snowshoe, ATV, and dog tracks can be seen following the Rio Grande through town. Oh, to walk on water, and they will, at least until the warm-up begins.

And, Creede hosted its 6th Annual Golden Pick Tommyknocker Pond Hockey Tournament in mid-January. Players come from all over the Valley, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas to play in one of the highest elevation pond tournaments in the world – 8,900 feet. 

On a practical level, how do folks deal with sub-zero temps on a daily basis?  Leave the water dripping in sinks and bathtubs to keep the pipes from freezing. Wear long underwear, 24-7, and bib overalls if you work outdoors. Some people use heated water bowls for outdoor pets and construct cozy straw bale shelters for them. Feral cats get invited inside and many adapt so quickly to litter boxes and indoor behavior that they are adopted.  

Angie Krall of Del Norte grew up in Pueblo County and has two puppies, a cat and an older dog to take care of, so the cold has created another level of chores for Krall. The slight warming trend has been welcome. “Yesterday, I felt the first break from it. I’ve never felt such a sustained cold ever. I was starting to go a little mental. It felt like this incredible relief – no more cloistered feeling.”

Like Krall, many continually build woodpiles throughout the summer and carefully measure consumption of sunshine converted to fire throughout the winter. 

“We’re wondering if we have enough firewood,” Krall said. “I’ve never burned this much before. Send your beetle kill down, we’ll use it.”

Krall copes in other ways too. “I wear a lot of clothes in my house. A friend from grad school and I were enamored by the fact that Jimmy Carter wore sweaters in the White House.”

All else fails, Valley folks go on a road trip. Anna Murphy, who lived in the Valley for twenty-one years and now lives in Fort Collins, said, “I left whenever I could to stay with family in Denver. I’d wait until the last possible minute on Sunday to come home.”

Krall, an archaeologist, says that ancient peoples in the Valley dealt with the cold in the same way. “There’s a theory that they got out of here to Salida, Taos, Pagosa, and Pueblo.” 

Doesn’t sound like a bad idea, at least not until summer when the thermometer hits triple digits in the Arkansas Valley.

by Michelle Le Blanc

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