Saturday, August 29, 2009

Beginning of the End

Random Thoughts

Tonight Space Shuttle Discovery launched into the dark Florida sky on it's way to the International Space Station. Spectacular video, starkly lit by the light of the Solid Rocket Boosters and a big waxing Moon. Tonight's launch was the first I've seen on a High Definition! I also had NASA TV streaming on the coverage.

Monday morning, the Space Station is going to make a brightly lit pass over the ancestral digs...I'll get up early to see it transit...I haven't seen a pass since the astronauts deployed the new solar arrays...should be really something, unless the Marine Layer and it's overcast reappear.

After tonight's launch, there's only six more Shuttle Flights scheduled before the program sunsets forever. NASA's spent the last two decades messing about in Low Earth Orbit, but they're making plans to go back to the Moon, and ultimately out to Mars. I hope we make it while I'm still here to see it.

I can't wait for this week's heat wave to break up. This afternoon the upper 90's temperatures were joined by some Subtropical Moisture and clouds from ex-Tropical Storm feels like Baja, only without the smoky smells and humid evening breezes. Another six weeks or so, and we'll be out of the frying pan, so to speak. The 11 o'clock weathercast said we're cooling off big time...starting tomorrow! Hooray...if it happens.

So far, Fire Season hasn't gotten out of hand. Some of the family are in Carmel-by-the Sea for a wedding. They needed to check on a wildfire in the area before they left...all clear, for now. A couple more weeks, and the campers in the mountains will break camp and head back home, and the temperatures will cool. I hope we can dodge the big fires for the remainder of the season.

I'll be headed up the hill in a few weeks. It's time to visit the Mountain, pick up a month's worth of mail, and spend a few hours with a trout rod in my hand. I'm looking forward to a couple of days at the Reno Air Races, too. It will be nice and cool in could go either way out at Stead Field for the Races.

Over the years, I've broiled in the Sun out there, and a couple of years I've nearly frozen to death. In the early 2000's, the final Sunday of racing ran ahead of schedule. In more than 25 years of going to the Air Races, it was the only time the Unlimited Gold Race was early. It had to be done, there was a solid white snow-squall line marching towards the Stead Valley as the temperature plummeted. The Big Boys got 'er done, and all the race planes were recovered before the flurries began.

I don't have a clever quip to end on's too hot in here. I'm fully hydrated though...maybe I'm poached.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Dark Matters

I awoke with a seems like I awake with a start a lot some seasons, though the past few have been low on sleep disrupting drama. The time I'm remembering was January 28th, 1986. Yet another hard to forget day in America. Just before 9AM PST, Shuttle Challenger exploded one minute and thirteen seconds into it's tenth mission to space. I woke up with the television on just as she disintegrated while the solid rocket boosters traced that "Devil's Horns" pattern in the sky.

I was disoriented when I awoke, and I wasn't understanding what I was seeing. Waking up a little more, it finally started to dawn on me what had happened...God, I hated that.

I'm a child of the Fifties, and I was nine years old when American Astronauts began blasting off, into Space. I ate that stuff up! The Original Mercury Astronauts were bigger than life in my young eyes, and Philip Kaufman hit the nail on the head with his film "The Right Stuff" twenty-odd years later. I watched every Manned Launch, throughout the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Programs...I didn't miss a one. When John Glenn was up in Friendship 7, I listened in live from school on my first Transistor Radio. I watched the first Spacewalk outside of Gemini IV.

All the Manned Spaceflights were reported by Walter Cronkite on CBS-TV. To me, Cronkite was the voice of the Space Program. I paid rapt attention to the Moon Landings, to Skylab and to Apollo/Soyuz. I was a big fan, I built the plastic models, read everything I could about NASA and the Astronauts, and I still have my Gemini Program Lunchbox.

I'm not sure what happened to me after the Moon Landings. Maybe it was the lag time between the Moon and the first Shuttle launch. Oh, I saw all the shuttle testing, the launches and landings, the 747 piggy-back rides, but somehow I stopped getting up to watch the launches live. Now I was watching taped packages on the evening news, instead.

The Shuttle Program really started getting off the ground about the time I moved up to Donner Summit and started working at the Mountain. I was the FNG at the Mountain, and I worked my ass off. I must have been too darn tired to get up and watch those early shuttle launches. I really didn't reconnect with the Space Program until I was grooming full time, and NASA began to visit the USSR's Mir Space Station. These missions took place in the mid-90's, just as the Internet was beginning to roll out to the masses.

I built a friend's house over the summer of 1996, and we got up in the middle of the night to watch STS-78 the Shuttle Columbia re-enter on it's way back to Cape Kennedy. My friend's friend had an internet hook-up, and fixed us up with the info we needed to see the show. The friend printed the twenty-plus pages that had the times and directions to see the Re-entry show, and even had a page telling how long after the shuttle passed overhead, we'd hear the Sonic Boom!

Well, that lit the fire under me all over again. Watching Columbia re-enter right overhead was awesome! She was going through the Maximum Dynamic Pressure phase, surrounded by highly ionized atmospheric particles. The orbiter appeared to be glowing purple as if a comet's head, leaving a long ionized trail in glowing orange that hung in the night sky for a couple of minutes...Imagine a neon electric con-trail. It was beautiful, but it dissipated well before the Sonic Boom that followed the fly-over by 4:30 (4min 30 sec) As it passed over us, Columbia was doing Mach 25!

I decided that night that I'd get my own computer with the internet, so I could know when to see more stuff in the Night Sky.

Graveyard Groomers can't help but start wondering what all the stars overhead are named, what the Constellations are called, and what all the stuff moving independently from the rest of the stars are. Over the years, there have been several Comets that hung in the sky like mysterious visitors from beyond...this never fails to inspire us to learn a little more about Astronomy.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


When I listen to the radio these days, it seems that there's a "new" 40th Anniversary of something every day this month. Then I hear the report: Senator Kennedy passed away on August 25th, closing the final chapter of America's Camelot.

I remember the other Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts. When I knew of him, he was President, the first one I paid any attention to...the first sitting President who's name I even knew. President Kennedy visited Salt Lake City in 1963, and his motorcade drove right down the street by my elementary school. I remember his Lincoln, his suit, and the slush on the sidewalk that we kids kicked around while we waited for his limo to pass on his way out to the airport.

About two months later, I was in Music Class at that school when the announcement of his end was made. I remember it like it was yesterday, at least some of it. All the sorrow of that week of televised events around the assassination...Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, LBJ and Jackie and the funeral, has blurred the specifics now that forty-six years have passed. But the announcement...that moment is indelible, frozen like a snapshot, unedited and still profound.

When I was in elementary school, history was not my favorite subject. Back then History was just dry old dead men, and rote learning of important dates in history. Boring.

Forty-six years of living well have given me a love of history that I never would have expected back in my Salt Lake City school days, but I might have gotten an inkling of what history would come to mean if I'd had the wisdom that's been knocked into me over those decades. I might have gotten a clue on a field trip my class took the next spring, but the sixth grade kid hadn't started listening to the little voice in his head yet.

We took a bunch of school buses out to Promontory Point, UT on the 95th Anniversary of the "Driving of the Golden Spike" commemorating the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The place was amazing, there were two parallel roadbeds out there in the High Desert. Though the rails and ties were gone, the site was still littered with artifacts! There were shovel heads, and sledge hammer heads and railroad spikes laying all over the place.

Looking back, I'm amazed that we just walked out to the site, on the actual there would be a boardwalk...a sensible distance from the twin roadbeds, with a fence to protect said roadbeds from the public. Our teacher told us that the Congress had authorized the two railroads to build the new railroad across the country, but neglected to stipulate that the two roads be joined as soon as they met! That's what history is about! Nothing dry or boring, just a good yarn that's easily remembered.

About twenty years after that May day on the Utah sagebrush plateau, I was living atop Donner Summit, working as a groomer, and setting foot on history everywhere I walked! History is everywhere up there, and the Transcontinental Railroad climbs right over Donner Summit. China Wall, built by Chinese labor for the Central Pacific RR just east of the summit still stands, and was a still a working roadbed for the Southern Pacific into the 1980's. Just west of China Wall is the Summit Tunnel that was bored through solid granite. It was such hard rock that Union Pacific Construction Boss Charles Crocker had the blasters use nitro-glycerin to speed progress.

In April of 1866, three crates of nitro-glycerin bound for the Summit Tunnel arrived in San Francisco. One of the crates detonated, destroying the Wells Fargo office and killing fifteen. It's said that this accident was the impetus for Alfred Nobel & Company to invent dynamite. The fortune made from dynamite has grown geometrically, and funds the Nobel Prizes to this day.

I've heard a lot of History as it's made and reported while in my snowcat. I heard about Ronald Reagan's brush with the assassin's bullets in a Cat, I remember the run I was grooming when I heard the news of Kurt Cobain's suicide, and I was grooming the lower bunny hill when I heard of the Space Shuttle Columbia's re-entry demise. That one was poignant, because my whole crew saw Columbia fly over on her way to meet her fate that morning.

I was leading all of the Free Groomers in a pack that night, and I planned the shift so we'd be in the best position to see the Shuttle zoom over. I'd seen one shuttle re-enter seven years earlier, and it was spectacular, so I was looking forward to a treat. There was some scattered cloud cover, but the sky was open enough to see Columbia heading east. Things got real busy that morning, and I was on the 2-Way so much that I turned my stereo off until after sunrise. One of the Guys heard the news, and let us know by 2-Way, Shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas and all hands on board were lost...pretty stunning. I had a Winch Operator on top of the mountain at the time of the shuttle pass, and he radioed that the orbiter seemed to be sparkling, a detail obscured for us lower on the hill by the sparse cloud cover.

Over the following months, I learned that the "Sparkles"seen by my Winch Operator, were melting aluminum bits shed from the foam-damaged wing of the doomed orbiter.

Another bit of History, that's far from dry and boring...I can't help but wonder...what's history got in store for us this season?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Spring Cleaning

There's still around four weeks of Summer to be enjoyed before Fall officially begins. Then the days will start being shorter than the nights. Three months of Fall, and then Winter begins on the shortest day of the year. After the Winter Solstice, the nights will get shorter and the days longer, until another season ends in the Spring.

Every Fall groomers wrap up their summer jobs, or vacations, and start readying their Winter programs. Once the World Series is played, baseball goes into hibernation until Spring, and I start to plan for the upcoming season in earnest. Job Fairs, phone calls to the Crew, visits to the Mountain and the Vehicle Shop...catching up, making plans, making back-up plans.

My mom is doing some "Spring Cleaning" too. My Dad passed away in Spring a year ago. Mom's cleaning up his stuff, making sure it goes where it should, to family members to whom it will mean plenty. The rest she boxes carefully and donates to charity. Today she's going thru some bookshelves, looking to donate or redirect the tomes to the right places. She found a old letter she thought might be of interest to TruckeeDave.

The paper was typed, four single-sided pages, with a chart and a table. It said:
"INCREASE PROFITS WITH ACCURATE WEATHER FORECASTS" It was written by an Agricultural Climatology Professor from Purdue University, and the Director of Research, American Farm Research Association, West Lafayette, Indiana. The yellowing paper was dated October 29, 1963

My Maternal Grandfather was a Family Farmer in Park County, Indiana. He practiced "Scientific Farming" according to my mother, and he worked often with Purdue University. Grandpa often hosted Purdue students, while they studied Agriculture and it's many facets. They learned from the farmer in the field, and he in turn learned the latest scientific trends in farming from the college students and their professors. I visited "The Farm" several times when I was little, but once I was a teenager, the visits ended, for whatever reason. I hold "The Farm" as the symbol, whenever I hear Family Farm, Family Farmers, and the like.

I've often told my mom that Ski Resorts are just like farms...we're totally dependent on the Weather, and barring that, what little science we have developed to cope with less than optimum weather. Our crop is called "Skier Visits", our fertilizer, Marketing.

Grandpa's Weather Paper was a short compendium on local weather forecasting. The first paragraph was homey, though:

"Grandpa (that's the generic grandpa, not my Grandfather) could often predict the weather with uncanny ability. From careful observations over the years he learned that a certain sequence of weather changes meant fair or foul weather. However, he knew that his predictions were, at the very best, only educated guesses."

"Today, thanks to weather observers with modern equipment and good communications, you don't have to guess about tomorrow's weather. The official forecast coupled with your own interpretation of local conditions enables you to predict tomorrow's weather even better than Grandpa could. This will mean greater profits because you can schedule important work, both indoors and in the field, on the basis of the weather prediction. Furthermore, you'll enjoy the weather, both good and bad, because you predicted it"

It all seemed so simple then, homespun, almost easy...forty-six years ago we had not even begun to depend on satellites, computers were still as large as houses, and TV was just turning Colors.

Truth is, "Grandpa" was "predicting" the weather in the interior of North America, far from the fury of ocean systems, and the mountain ranges that wring our weather from those Pacific Storms. In the middle of the country, their excitement comes in the spring when the warm tropical systems meet cold Canadian systems and spawn tornado outbreaks...that's NOT so easy.

Every fall I start paying close attention to the weather forecasts again. Each fall I start spending part of every day clicking through the internet, checking Zone Forecasts, AFD Discussions, Remote Sensors, and Online Weather Stations. My Weather Bookmark Folder has 36 websites in it. Every fall I spend a long afternoon "refreshing" all these Bookmarks. A good two thirds of the sites I visited daily last season don't exist, or point to a webpage that is totally different than last year.

You hear much these days about Government Bureaucracies and Federal Inertia...Big Gray Government Monoliths obscuring the world from the gaze of The People...Don't believe it! (Not when you're talking about the National Weather Service!) The Federal webmasters are always in motion, the NWS websites change faster than Sierra Nevada Winter Weather!

Every other "Weather Geek" I know has their own concoction of weather sites and online tools that help them be satisfied with the day to day weather stories, and specifics.

When the days get shorter, after I've done my Spring Clean-Up, I'll post a list of the Websites I rely on...however, I won't bother until November. I only want to do this chore once a season!

I have spent that long afternoon, cleaning out and updating my Weather Bookmarks, every year since I started using the internet as my primary weather tool...somewhere about 10-12 years ago, at least.

This chore serves to remind me that our Earth is moving through Space, and we are moving through time on that Earth, and that We ought to make the best of it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Woops, Missed!

Man, did it heat up today! The Inland Valley is baking! The NWS said yesterday, there's a cooling trend coming for the weekend. Yesterday it was civil Like an oven! I thought these were the "Dog Days" of summer, and the Bay Area TV Weathermen were on Auto-Pilot...what gives?

Whenever I'm wondering what the forecast is, or what went wrong with the last one, I go to the National Weather Service website for my local NWS Office. On the Mountain, during Winter, I keep up with Both of the local NWS Offices who make forecasts for my locale. The Reno, NV and Sacramento, CA offices have me covered.

Both maintain VHF Weather Radio Stations. Our 2-Way radios have a dedicated channel to receive the Weather Radio Broadcasts. Depending where I am on the Mountain, I can listen to one or the other. Every night they broadcast their new 3AM Observations for the surrounding weather stations. Then the normal roll of zone forecasts, watches and warnings is updated until the next forecast comes along. It takes about 10-12 minutes for the loop of information and forecasts to begin again.

The NWS offers many online products to help keep up with the forecasts, trends and observations locally. When you watch your favorite TV Weathercaster, they are giving a condensed version of these forecast products tailored to the desires of their particular viewers. When I'm watching my Local TV forecast, I'm not hearing too much, I'm really waiting for the pictures...the satellite and radar loops are all I take home from TV. I get my real intel from the NWS Websites. Each NWS Office issues their forecasts several times daily, and in several flavors: Clickable Interactive Maps give custom pinpoint forecasts, there are Zone Forecasts, as well as Tabular Forecasts. All of these products deliver the same forecast conclusions...just in different manners, to suit the preferences of different users.

Never one to be spoon-fed, I start at the Zone Forecast. I read the whole thing, and compare it to the earlier Zone Forecasts, also available on the Zone Forecast page, and make my assessment.

Once I think I know what the story is, I click on the Discussion or AFD Link.

The Area Forecast Discussion is the weatherman's blog, if you will. Here is where the meteorologist responsible for the forecast lists the different observations and model predictions that weighed most in their preparation of the forecast. These guys run several different models for every forecast cycle, several times a day. In the Discussion they cite the observations that influenced their refinements to the different model results, and why they matter. There's quite a bit more information here than in the "finished" forecast that gets abbreviated again by the TV News writers.

There is a really handy feature on the Discussion can click on the Previous Discussions, going back ten versions. Do this day in and day out, and you start to get a feeling of the way the forecasters are thinking...which factors weigh heaviest in their analyses and compilations. After some time you get a feel for their style. The Service has all kinds, in my experience, each Office has it's own style or bent...some are circumspect and careful...and some are like Cowboys...right out of the Wild West. The truth lies somewhere between that Gunslinger and the Buttoned Down CPA type.

Once my season is underway, and I've caught up enough to have a routine, I check the AFD often, depending on the stakes at hand. A dodgy forecast leading to the Biggest Holiday Weekend of the season? I do my research before bed, again when I wake up, and when I get off the Mountain in the morning, and again when I get home...this helps me get a feel for the confidence of the local real time. My next phone will be a smartphone with a big screen. With WiFi on the Mountain, I can play along with my local forecasters in real time...not to mention how handy it is to see real time radar returns!

Across the Industry, other Forecast Services play their parts too. My Mountain contracted with a new service a couple of years ago. I never gave the old service much thought...Why would I? That Service never made any trouble for me.

The new Guy is a different story! I don't know the New Guy...I do know he's an optimist though. I can't recall a single time he forecast LESS snowfall than we got. He's sort of the One Man Band version of the Valley TV weather show. He's curing a dry season with every call. I know not to get excited by his hollow promises, but the Brass over at the Base Lodge get all worked-up by the guy's email forecasts. Agitated by this guy, these folk start thinking too much...making lavish plans for building new runs or terrain features with all this promised snow...that never comes, in the amount advertised. Everyone needs a good hobby, but these forecasts always lead to overheated expectations, and eventually... disappointment.

When I've done my homework, I'm never disappointed. When I miss, I just vow to gather a little more intelligence next's all a learning curve. Do enough digging, and that curve won't turn into a Blind Corner!