By Marc Fried
Many of us like to imagine that wintery weather is pretty much over by the time March rolls around; and surely past by the end of that month, especially if there's already been a week or two of really mild weather: the sun is getting strong, the snow cover may be long gone, and crocuses are in bloom, with daffodils and tulips poking well up out of the ground. We may be tempted to use the vernal equinox as a signal to pack our winter clothing away.
Premature spring fever is usually a combination of wishful thinking and short memory. For the spring months, like all youth, are often fickle and unpredictable. But dynamic meteorological surprises during the three transitional months should be looked upon as gifts from Nature, the occasional ironic reality rush to remind us of who is still in charge. Personally, I find such drama reassuring, rather than dispiriting.
Though the sun's rays by late March are as strong as those of mid September, and I've seen March readings approach 90º on more than one occasion, just below the surface the ground is still cold from months of chill. When a late-season storm blows through, blocking out the sun, the air temperature can plummet. From my personal records and recollections, here are some of the more dramatic March-through-May weather events of the past half century in the Shawangunk Mountain region:
In 1967, the month of March saw three major snowstorms totaling about 35 inches, in addition to any lesser storms that might escape my memory. That March was the snowiest month of what was then the snowiest winter on record in the Shawangunks.
In March of 1981, after weeks of relatively mild weather, winter returned with a vengeance during the third week of the month. From the 14th to the 21st, daytime temperatures stayed in the 20s and low 30s. The 17th saw a brief, blinding snow squall with 35-40 mph winds. Flurries and heavier snow showers persisted on and off for a week, especially on the mountain, with the thermometer in the valley dipping to 10º on the 18th and 19th, 13º on the 20th.
But no March weather event compares to the Blizzard of the Century, March 13, 1993, with about 18 inches of snow driven by howling winds all afternoon and evening, sustained at 50 mph. I was camping on the mountaintop during that storm, and wrote about the experience in one of my books (Shawangunk: Adventure, Exploration, History and Epiphany from a Mountain Wilderness). On the 15th, I snowshoed out in nearly 3½ feet of the white stuff (both old and new). That morning the thermometer had registered -3º, and on the 19th, at home down in the valley, it was -1º. In shady spots high on the ridge, some patches of old snow remained until well into May, both this year and the one that followed.
In 1982, a spring blizzard dropped about a foot of wind-drifted snow on the 7th of April (I was in San Francisco and missed the whole thing). In 2000, the 8th of April saw the thermometer reach 76º, but the next morning it was 28º and snowing, and the afternoon high was only 38º. Winds gusted to 40 mph all day. The Wallkill Valley got half an inch of wet accumulation, but the Shawangunk ridge got about 6 inches.
1976 and 1977 both saw May snowfalls. The '76 event, leaving the mountain white from about the 1900' elevation on up, occurred on the 19th of May, a full month after a heat wave had seen the thermometer climb well above 90º. The 1977 May snow occurred on the 10th. I have a snapshot taken that day from my Wallkill Valley home, showing the Sam's Point plateau white with fresh snow while lilacs bloom in the immediate foreground. In 2002, wet snowflakes fell for an hour during the late morning of May 18, even in the valley, but I could not see any accumulation visible on the ridge.
The winter of 1960-61 was unusually cold and snowy. That spring, on the night of May 27-28, a cold rain fell in the valley, and by bedtime I remember my thermometer holding at a chilly 37º. During the night, the cold front responsible for this weather passed through to clear the air. The morning of the 28th brought a blue sky, bright sun, brisk wind and a mountaintop glistening with a substantial new snow cover. This was the latest accumulating snowfall on record in the Shawangunks.
The hiker who wishes to take advantage of nice spring weather for an outing in our mountains should come prepared for whatever tricks Nature may decide to play. This means, among other things, close attention to a local weather forecast: internet users should check weather.com for Cragsmoor, NY, which lies at 1900' and would more closely correspond to mountain conditions than New Paltz or Ellenville. But even a relatively benign forecast can on occasion be radically mistaken. There is no substitute for being prepared with wool cap and scarf, insulating layers of wool or fleece plus a windbreaker and rain gear. Even during the warmest months, Shawangunk weather can be potentially treacherous: I have seen 32º here at dawn on June 11 (1980) and rainy, misty days in mid or late July when the thermometer never manages to hit 60º. When planning an outing in any season, it's wise to keep in mind that "There is no such thing as bad weather; there is only inappropriate clothing."
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