Students trade toil for awesome skiing

Here's the deal: You get to hang out and ski in a pristine alpine environment that nobody gets to visit.

In return, all Mark Williams asks is that you take a few snow-depth measurements.

What do you say?

Oh, it's a three-day gig. And did they mention you'll be sleeping in something called the Tundra Lab that looks like a half-buried burrito?

You'll also need to snowshoe the 3½ miles up from CU's Mountain Research Station. The lab is at 11,600 feet, or about 2,000 vertical feet from the parking lot.

Taking measurements on Niwot Ridge
Working in Boulder's Silver Lake watershed, also known as Green Lake 4, Colleen Flanagan, left; Kim Raby, center left; Karen Cozzetto, kneeling; and Brandon Davis, right, watch Cozzetto wrestle a snow probe through more than 3 meters of snow to take a measurement of the depth. Mark Leffingwell/Daily Camera

From there, it's 2 miles and another 600 vertical to the edge of Niwot Ridge. And 600 feet back down to the Green Lakes Valley, where you do the snow measurements. For hours. And then you have to get back to the lab.

Brandon Davis, a 22-year-old CU senior, was among the eight who took the bait from Williams, the CU geography professor running the project.

"Now I see why they laugh at you when you volunteer to come up here," said Davis, sporting a tomato-red sunburn for his trouble.

Davis was using a miniature screwdriver to secure a meter-long addition to a snow probe. The two-person teams carried eight sections, each custom made of aerospace-quality aluminum and costing about $60 each. The first two meters had been swallowed by the softening blanket over Green Lake 4. He did not yet realize those sections had found a new home.

"You never want to just go down and stop, because it's almost guaranteed to get stuck," Williams had said earlier in the Tundra Lab, as volunteers gorged on peanut butter sandwiches and fistfuls of chocolate-laced trail mix.

About 100 paces back, the team had stabbed through a 10-foot snow drift where Niwot Ridge met the alpine valley. They recorded the 315-centimeter depth and GPS coordinates, courtesy of a cell phone-sized receiver around Davis' neck. They stood at 40.05 degrees north by 105.62 degrees west, at an altitude of 11,729 feet, it said. Karen Cozzetto, a CU doctoral student who also volunteered, wrote it down.

The project, an annual early May effort Williams has led since 1997, aims to collect between 500 and 600 snow-depth samples across a 550-acre watershed around Green Lake 4.

Content for class "ImageLeftFloat" Goes Here Mark Williams demonstrates proper snow-depth-measurement technique
Mark Williams, right, shows students how to use a snow probe to make accurate measurements of the snow depth Monday before leaving the Tundra Lab for the Green Lake 4 study area. The students are, from left, Paul Abood, Cynthia Cacy,
Brandon Davis, Ken Hill and Colleen Flanagan. Eight students volunteered to take part in the three-day study. Mark Leffingwell/Daily Camera

Williams and Long-Term Ecological Research program field technician Kurt Chowanski also dig five snow pits. The pits provide for snow-water equivalent and snow-chemistry data that feeds into a variety of long-term studies ranging from hydrology to ecology.

Such data is hard to come by, Williams said. For one thing, rarely is such an ostensibly remote area so close to civilization, or even a structure such as the Tundra Lab. It provides shelter from winds powerful enough to rip a windmill off its tower, as the former wind turbine's hacked-off blades attest.

"One of the problems with getting this type of data is you need to be safe," Williams said.

In addition to the scientific gear, the volunteers wore avalanche beacons and carried Motorola handsets with a 5-mile range.

CU graduate students Colleen Flanagan, 25, and Kim Raby, 30, at one point forced their probe down more than 25 feet, smashing through ice lenses and snow packed with up to 50 percent water content along the way. When extracted, the probe bowed sadly under its own heft.

Raby, who with INSTAAR graduate student Daniel Cordalis, 27, was the only veteran volunteer, said the effort beat sitting at a computer all day. She said she loved being out there, but was disappointed that Williams forgot to bring the beer.

"The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," she said.