The Blizzard of 2003, By 97B40

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.

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been another entry for Round 74 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:

First Prize:

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Round 74 ends on January 31st, so get busy writing and e-mail us your entry. Remember that there is a 1,500-word minimum, and that articles on practical “how to” skills for survival have an advantage in the judging.


  1. 97B40
    Your great story helped me remember the week I started to prepare. We had a similar situation. Around 1987 we had a cold wet December when the wind changed to out of the North. We had snow, ice, downed power lines and no power for 10 days. We had a little fire wood which we used to feed an open fireplace. The house was so cold we had 5 people sleeping in the living room. My wonderful mother in law, visiting from San Diego, just kept telling us she could not understand how we could live in a place like this.
    Our young sons were very cold which motivated me greatly.
    Never again became my battle cry.
    My mother in law is in heaven, our sons have moved on and
    30 years later we are are still tweeking the preps living in this beautiful place.

  2. “land lines are not obsolete”
    BUT – check things out. In my area, when there is no electricity then there is no telephone service! As I found out the hard way when we had an ice storm several years ago that took out electricity for a week. Now I have solar power(minimal – about 45 watts) and a cell phone, in addition to the land line.

    1. The only way your landline would be out of electricity is if the central office was not powering the lines. Every central office is required to have battery backups for the mainlines leaving. Even in California, we had entire rooms devoted to battery backup. Check with your landline provider and find out what they are NOT doing!

      1. The problem may be that you have a phone that needs to be plugged in to 120volt power to work! If so by a phone that dosen’t have a transformer plugged into it and just runs off of phone line current.

        1. I live in the Redoubt and purchased one of those old Princess phones for ten dollars at a local junk/antique store, to go with my landline. Works just fine and doesn’t need batteries or to be plugged in to electric outlet. And it reminds me of my teenage years! Still use my smartphone for most things but it’s a great feeling to have the back up communications.

  3. In the Midwest this weekend, expecting highs at Zero, lows in the Minus 10 to 20 range, with only 3-6 jnches of snow (Colorado looks like a banana belt in contrast). Light winds forecasted so hopefully no power outages expected from downed lines.

    One thing I’ve learned is that new modern heavily insulated garage doors are extraordinarily heavy – power goes out and no electricity for the opener (unless you have a battery backup), you are screwed unless you can clean and jerk 300 lbs. if your cars are in the garage, along with the big snow blower that won’t fit through the side door, you’ll have some issues – I have a generator on wheels in garage if necessary but others may have overlooked this issue.

    If power is likely to be out for more than a few days with low temperatures, then be ready to drain your water pipes, including any water in your toilet tanks – otherwise the freeze damage will be very expensive – saw this in a blizzard that hit the Cascades in the late 70’s.

    Lots of calories needed in this weather and now thinking about the options when it’s too cold to cook outside for long (ever tried to use your propane grill at minus 10 – it doesn’t work!) – better see if the Coleman stove is ready along with the lanterns – using the propane tanks first then the fuel as a back-up.

    Stay warm, and God Bless…

    1. @J.T.
      Just wondering if you have had your springs checked on your garage door? I have a 10×10 insulated garage door on my shop/garage and when I installed it, the door was balanced where even a small child could open it. Over the years, the springs have settled in and it now takes a bit of lifting to open it, but the torsion springs can be re-calibrated to balance it. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I don’t have an electric opener on the door.

      1. HJL:
        Most of doors you two are talking about can have a fall chain back up installed. Some door manufacturers have available some don’t. Scuttlebutt has it that there are aftermarket one on the net at the writing of this blog article I was unable to confirm this, however if anyone beats me to the confirmation I would also be interested in finding out when, where, and from whom. And, remember use your legs when lifting heavy weights, no kidding, I got lucky when I heriniated a disc in my back and have not had a problem since not everyone is so blessed after a back injury, so, find the chain fall, get the chain fall, install the chain fall! Work smarter and not harder.

    2. on those heavy garage doors they have springs to help neutralize the weight if you’re carefull and have tools you can tension the springs so they open easily … will also save power and wear on your openers

      1. Will be calling the garage door folks – replaced one spring on one side, and then one spring on the the other door – may not have gotten the tension right – glad to hear the other options.

      2. Great points – replaced one spring on one door, then another on the other door – likely should have just replaced both springs, and will have the garage guys back out to see how well they can get the tension reset.

  4. My overhead garage door is 20′ wide x 8′ high clear. a spring recently broke, as it always will at the most inconvient time. it took my son and i to raise it and i propped it open with a 2×4. if my son wasnt around, i would have had to use my floor jack or farm jack to raise it to a point to get enough weight on the overhead tracks to the point where i could raise it myself, but i could have done it alone. my genny is in the garage where my backfeed outlet is, so if power was out i could have powered it, but even with power the operator doesnt work with a broken spring. lessons learned:
    10 year maintenence schedule on the door ( it was 14 years old and also needed new cables, lubrication and a belt on the operator)

    rules of 3 for raising it!
    Happy New Year to all, safe preps!

  5. In the states a major snow storm is called SnowArmageddon, here in northern British Columbia Canada, we call it a Wednesday. At least 3 full bush cords of firewood, food, and water prepared to hunker down as long as required. No Walmarts here.

  6. We live in northern Maine, where this morning’s temperature was – 16 F. Getting a plow truck in is very expensive and it takes days, and snow blowers were constantly breaking with no good mechanics, so this year we plow with horses. It works great, and they leave a few inches of very hard pack snow over the gravel to protect our pipes. We also heat with wood; most of our neighbors would die if the power went out for a few days since their oil burners and pellet stoves would fail. Scary to think about.

  7. My daughter was born Dec 21, 1990. My wife had a scheduled c section. A storm was predicted and I had very little in the way of preps. I went out and bought a little kerosene heater and 5 gallons of kerosene. The doctor had to be brought to the hospital in someone’s 4wd as he could not get out his driveway. We lost power for a week. Lost water a few days in when the local water company’s tank emptied out finally and could not be refilled. We stayed warm and did ok. I heat completely with wood now but that kerosene heater is not a bad way to go for some circumstances.

  8. Great story. We were in good shape (food, water, wood heat) in Montana but didn’t have a generator. We recently added a generator; a quiet, fuel efficient and portable Honda 2000 generator. There is nothing like reading when the grid goes down. Now we have lights and can run our frig. We should have bought it years ago!

  9. I think everyone in the mountains of West Virginia has a generator. Power goes out here fairly often though my place has maxed out at only about 6 days off. We’ve seen our share of big snows. 1977 was the worst in recent memory with totals well into the double digits of feet. D9 dozers from the local strip mines were used to clear roads. I was in high school then and we went to school 2 or 3 days at the beginning of Jan and didn’t return till sometime in Feb.

    Deep larder here, generator and a wood furnace as backup. Propane fireplace works great even without the fan and Kerosene heat is always available. Be prepared folks.

    1. I was in the same Colorado storm in 2003 in the northern mountains at 7200 feet. I too was alone and to fight the boredom, spent hours each day shoveling around the house to get to the back up generator in the shed, solar panels were useless. Two things I learned was to stay close to house and have snow shoes. I tried to go down the driveway on cross country skis and almost died in the deep snow.

  10. Sir/Ma’am,

    Where I am currently posted, the Great Ice Storm of 98 hit this area hard. Many were without any Grid power for atleast 3 weeks. This included upwards of 700 000 US people.

    Your article is a good reminder to be self sufficent, and prepared if Nature has its way.

    God bless,

    1. Especially those of y’all that are on active duty. Make sure your family is well Prepared if you have to head “down range”. Thank you and God Bless you.

  11. Massive snows with low temperatures make for awesome challenges. The power outage usually precedes either the freezing of pipes or something else breaking.

    Even single-point failures at weather extremes make things a misery. Nothing like replacing part of your garage door opener at -25 F with an added 20-30 mph wind to drag the last bit of heat out of you.

    Not certain exactly what temperatures 100LB LP tanks stop producing, but have had to bring in three of the four tanks inside to warm, rotating an warmed up one outside when the gas started tapering off.

    When we get a hint of a Snowmagedon in the works, I drag a skid steer home from work, and plug in its engine heater. Makes pretty quick work of clearing a lot of snow, as long as you don’t get off the road too badly (yes, there is a story there..). I usually son nearby neighbors once I’ve dug myself out.

    Decent snowmobile gear seems to work okay for clearing snow. I guess if you think about it the windchills voluntarily experience snowmobiling are more than most real weather offers. I have a backup that is a Nomex version from oil platform safety gear I sometimes use, but it is pretty heavy.

    As for those power outages, well that is why I’ve kept four-five cords of split firewood just outside and refused to cave in when family wants to put gas logs in everything.

    If prepared being “snowed in” is a treat. One has to let go of vanity expenditures of energy though – if prepared well you can let the snow fall carry on until it is done. A few times I didn’t get to grab a bobcat early enough I called in help, and then passed-forward the favor by helping others.

    Some nasty stuff to be prepared for in a Snowmagedon are dealing with damages to the house like broken windows or if the frost drives deeper than your foundation frost walls having doors that won’t close or get popped out. There is a a reason you kept some big sheets of cardboard and plywood handy, and a couple extra rolls of batt insulation, right? I’ve found some scrap pieces of rubber a roofer was throwing away very handy for impromptu cold weather repairs. Some of the plastic sheet I scrounged were unworkable at cold temperatures as they lost their flexibility.

    As a school kid I’ve gone to school on cross country skis, though mostly because my folks sent us outside to burn off energy. Falling though the ice up my armpits in a snow covered – no a snow hidden -stream was an adventure, as I had to build a fire and dry gear out before walking back out of the woods in the dark. Forgot to mention it was about -20 F but fortunately not very windy.

    Life is an adventure!

    1. Stay in the South?

      Very poor snowmobiling down there, and the ice fishing is highly substandard!

      Hard to make naturally freeze-distilled “apple jack” as well down there.

      Ir is pretty awesome and humbling to experience all four seasons unfettered.

      Missed every time life moved me away for a while.

      Oh, on landline phones – power outages are why you keep a couple old fashioned no power needed other than the phone line itself phone sets around. And then the lines can still go down regardless of how well you’re prepared.

  12. When I was a kid growing up in rural Indiana, whenever the power went out, the land line phones did too. In those days we didn’t have cell phones. The power and phone lines shared the same poles, so when a falling branch took out the power, it also took out the phones.

    We had a good pile of wood out in the back yard and usually two or three nights a winter the family curled in front of the fireplace. Power and phones were usually restored within a day or two.

    A more cautionary tale concerning land line phones was the earthquake of 1989 in San Francisco. Phone service was not restored for a week. There was no way we could contact friends and relatives to say that we were OK. The house we were in was built on bedrock, so experienced very little shaking, but with the power and phones out, no communications, no back up battery powered radio or TV, that was most disconcerting. With visions of 1906 in our minds, we could see in the distance the glow of a big fire, but had no way to know whether or not it posed a danger to us (it didn’t).

    I now have a Ham license and am trying to set up an emergency communications protocol with other family members should a similar situation happen again.

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