Arctic Blasted

December 30, 2008


Situated between Oregon’s Coast Range and the Cascade Mountains, the Willamette Valley has predictable weather for most of the year: nine months of rain and generally three months of really nice weather. Typically there will be a week or so of cold temperatures sometime between December and February. It might flurry in Portland briefly, but rarely does snow accumulate in any significant amount. When an inch falls and sticks around, schools close and the city shuts down for at least two days. It’s a pretty reliable indicator that for every inch of snow two days of school are canceled. The local news stations freak out and go on 24 hour weather coverage. Having grown up in the Midwest, the whole thing is pretty ridiculous. Pulling your car out of the driveway during one of these storms is tantamount to playing Russian Roulette. Four wheel drive vehicles careen down the roads thinking they are invincible, only to realize that having four wheel drive doesn’t mean shit when trying to stop. Last year’s snowy week produced this gem of a video. With over a million views on Youtube it is a modern classic.

This year the storms hit at the most opportune time: Christmas! The cold weather started the week before schools released for Christmas break. Pretty awesome when the paycheck depends on schools being open. It barely snowed that week and the streets were fine, yet somehow it was deemed necessary to shut them all down. Go figure.

The real snow didn’t start until the following week anyway. This is my sixth winter in Portland and until this year I’ve never had to shovel snow. It dumped and dumped loads of snow further exacerbating the terrible driving conditions and shutting down stores, restaurants and the airport. My dad made it into town, from Chicago, for a nine day stay. Sarah was set to fly home to Boston on the Sunday before Christmas but her flight was canceled. Tuesday we tried to get her out again. Miraculously she was able to get on a flight to Boston with a connection in Chicago. I drove away from the airport feeling that it was too good to be true. As soon as I walked in the door the phone rang and Sarah told me the flight was canceled. I once again braved the treacherous roads to retrieve her from the airport. On the car ride home she told me she had met people who had been at the airport for three days. When they announced the flight cancellation there was much swearing, some puking and one fainting pregnant woman. It sounded intense. Back to the house for us! I’m not sure if you’ve ever been snowed in with two other people before, especially one pissed off girlfriend that was very much looking forward to going home for the holidays, but I don’t recommend it. That’s enough about that.

The most exciting part of cold weather events in the Portland area is the ice climbing opportunities that present themselves when the Columbia River Gorge freezes. This year proved to be a long freeze with a lot of ice coming in, but very unproductive for me. My bum wrist, general lack of fitness and family obligations prevented me from getting out all but one day early in the freeze. That day mostly involved driving and walking around looking at partially frozen things until the temperatures rose and it stated to rain in the afternoon. Eventually a lot of climbs came in and the ice got fat, but of course as soon as they did the temperatures warmed and the rains came. Such is the life of an Oregon ice climber.

A day and a half of rain wiped out what snow remained on the ground, erasing the evidence of the epic arctic blast of ’08. It is now as if it never happened and we are returned to our regularly scheduled program. Enjoy the New Year, another arctic blast lurks just around the corner.

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