A potential crisis situation is shaping up at the 12,800’-elevation Mountain-71 communication site as the result of a “perfect storm” of events stemming from the recent, prolonged snowstorms.
As reported in recent months, batteries at the high elevation communication site overlooking the Lake Fork Valley are aging and no longer effectively hold a charge. Located within a compact communications building, a battery of 24 batteries — each weighing 860-lb. — is charged by an expansive array of solar panels. Hinsdale Commissioners have repeatedly met in recent months and just last month made the decision to expend $100,000 to replace the aging and heavy battery pack with 120 smaller, 47-lb. batteries.
The situation is complicated by the fact the shipment of new batteries was scheduled for delivery last week but due to snowy weather did not arrive until Thursday afternoon this week.
In the event of prolonged cloudy days when the 71-Mountain solar array is not producing energy for the batteries, the site is equipped with a diesel-powered generator which maintains the communications system. Adding to the “perfect storm” of crisis events now occurring, the generator has been working double time during the week-long snowstorms, and on Tuesday, January 10, experienced what has been termed “catastrophic failure.” Hinsdale County Road Crew, which has been hauling diesel to the site via SnoCat to run the generator, received an electronic warning that the generator was running low on fuel on Tuesday.
Due to heavy snow conditions en route, however, SnoCat operator Gavin McNitt became bogged down in snow within a half-mile of the 71-Mountain communications building and was unable to reach the site. In the midst of fierce snow conditions on Wednesday, January 11, a second attempt was made to reach the communications building, this time with the SnoCat accompanied by two snowmobiles driven by local residents Tom Carl and Road & Bridge employee JoAlan Blowers. The SnoCat once again became bogged down in the heavy snow, although the two snowmobiles were able to reach the communications building.
After entering the building, Carl and Blowers found that the backup generator is inoperable and severely damaged — the result, they explain, of a water pump outlet shaft sheering off, detaching a fan which in turn damaged the radiator core. Carl says ground blizzards reduced visibility en route and at the communications site to less than 10’.
If cloudy snow conditions continue, and without the backup generator, the battery bank will be exhausted within two days and emergency communications will go down. Imminent failure of batteries at the communications site may also impact local communications owing to the fact the battery array also provides cell phone and internet access which are provided locally by ComNet and Simply Broadband. As a radio communications site, the 71-Mountain repeater provides requisite radio communications for a wide variety of local, regional and state agencies, including Hinsdale EMS and sheriff’s office, Hinsdale Road & Bridge, Colorado State Patrol, and Colorado Dept. of Transportation, as well as U.S. Forest Service and BLM.
With news of the damaged backup generator in hand, Hinsdale County Commissioner Stan Whinnery hastily convened an emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon, January 11, which, in addition to the commissioner, was attended by EMS Director Jerry Gray, Road & Bridge Supervisor Monte Hannah, Deputy Emergency Operations Manager Rick Hernandez, Tom Carl, and Hinsdale County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Chris Kambish.
The outcome of that meeting, as outlined to WORLD by Commissioner Whinnery, is to set in motion coopertive, no-charge agreements for the temporary loan of several heavy-duty SnoCats
capable of hauling new batteries to the 71-Mountain communications site. The SnoCats — one on loan from Gunnison County, two Tucker Snowcats with drivers from State of Colorado, Division of Emergency Management, capable of transporting 1,500-lb (32 batteries) in one load, and two other Tucker cats, with drivers and diesel generator mechanic, which will be sent in by Tri-State Generation & Transmission from Montrose.
In addition to the smaller county SnoCat which is primarily used to maintain the Slumgullion Pass snowmobile trail system, Hinsdale County Sheriff’s Dept. also has a second, larger Tucker SnoCat which was acquired several years ago utilizing Homeland Security funding. The Tucker Cat, however, is presently inoperable as the result of a broken axle, with parts ordered but as yet not delivered owing to weather conditions.
A second emergency meeting by telephone conference call was held at 10 a.m. Thursday, January 12, with upwards of two dozen attendees from local, regional and state agencies.
The emergency plan being put in process at present calls for expedited delivery of the 120 new compact storage batteries on Thursday, after which communications site maintenance contractor Dale Myers, from Del Norte, will arrive on the scene on Friday this week and wire the new batteries into a cohesive unit. Breaking trail up to the communications site is also planned on Friday.
The larger, borrowed SnoCats will then be scheduled for multiple trips on Saturday delivering the batteries to 71-Mountain dfor compact installation within the communications building. In addition to the two Colorado Emergency Management Snowcats, the state is also sending in a diesel mechanic to review the exact condition of damaged generator.
According to Commissioner Whinnery, it is thought that sufficient hallway room exists in the communications building to allow temporary installation of the new batteries without removing the wall-width expanse of old batteries. The smaller new batteries have greater “autonomy,” according to Whinnery, meaning they have the potential to remain charged and provide power for between two and four days in cloudy weather when the solar array is non-functioning.
Weather in ensuing days remains an unknown factor which could hamper the planned emergency fix. Snow on 71-Mountain on Wednesday reduced visibility to less than 50’. “We’re not putting anyone in harm’s way just to install those batteries,” Commissioner Whinnery says.
Participants in the teleconference on Thursday morning also pondered the long-term fix for the broken generator. The existing generator dates to the communications building’s original installation in the 1980s and is sizable. It was literally built into the building and removal of the generator will require partial disassembly of the building — not an easy task given present weather conditions.
A new backup replacement generator delivered to the site must necessarily be housed inside the structure or in its own protective structure. An outside generator is impractical, according to Whinnery, because “horrendous conditions” would result in it quickly being swamped by snowdrifts which can exceed 20’ depth.