By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Call it one of those cases where the weatherman got one right.
The major winter storm that left dozens of motorists stranded in northwest Wyoming on Monday did not come as a surprise, according to a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Riverton.
However, despite winter storm advisories warning of snowfall of up to 2 feet in the area, drivers found themselves trapped on mountain roadways of the Bighorn Basin.
“We’ve been anticipating this storm system for, like, five to seven days,” Brett McDonald told Cowboy State Daily. “Saturday afternoon at about 2:30 (p.m.) is when the winter storm warning was issued for the Absarokas. And in that, we specifically mentioned total snow accumulations of 1 to 2 feet with potentially higher amounts on the southern half of the Absarokas.”
The Wyoming Department of Transportation webcam on the Chief Joseph Highway northwest of Cody caught several cars lined up in the snow, waiting for a WYDOT loader to clear the road.
WYDOT spokesperson Cody Beers told Cowboy State Daily that accumulations reached 2 to 3 feet on Dead Indian Pass.
“In addition to the people stuck at the top of Dead Indian Pass, there were 3 to 4 others stuck on the switchbacks on the west side of the pass,” Beers said. “Everybody stuck on the road was out of there safely by mid-afternoon (Monday).”
While many Cody area residents reported being stranded for more than 24 hours in the Sunlight Basin near Crandall on the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, the snowstorm didn’t just block traffic from the west. The Bighorn Mountains received significant snowfall, resulting in the closure of U.S. Highway 14A over the northern part of the range.
Brent Bien, who has been on the campaign trail as a gubernatorial candidate, was on his way to Cody to give the keynote speech for the Memorial Day service at the Wyoming State Veterans Memorial when he was delayed as he stopped to help a stranded motorist.
“I knew the weather was going to be bad up there over the Bighorns, so typically I get myself about four hours to get over to Cody,” Bien told Cowboy State Daily. “We came over kind of a rise (near Antelope Butte Ski Area), and it was snowing like crazy. I’d say there was probably at least at least 18 inches of snow up there. And I see right in the middle of the road there was a minivan that was just turned sideways.”
The driver and passenger of the van were an older couple from out-of-state, Bien said, who were not prepared for the spring storm.
“Another fellow in a pickup truck came from the other side, opposite of me, and we had to actually turn the minivan 180 degrees,” he said, “because once we got him oriented he couldn’t get up the hill, the roads were really slippery.”
After that 45 minute delay, Bien said he and his wife, Sue, were able to get to Cody just in time for the Memorial Day ceremony.
“When we drove back over (after the ceremony), it was snowing pretty hard up there again,” he said.
The storm, which brought heavy, wet snow to the mountains, also resulted in significant rain at lower elevations in the central part of the state.
“Lots of bowling ball-sized rocks fell all day on US14/16/20 (west of Cody),” said Beers, who praised the crews who kept the highway cleared. “All in all, great work by Cody maintenance!”
Yellowstone National Park received a decent snowfall, according to spokeswoman Linda Veress – but to her knowledge, no one was in need of rescue. Veress took the opportunity to remind visitors to be prepared for uncertain springtime weather.
“It’s springtime in the mountains, and the weather can be so variable that it’s really wise to check the forecast in advance of their visit, and just come prepared,” Veress told Cowboy State Daily. “Usually that means knowing what the road status is, what their weather forecast is, and then just bringing appropriate gear and clothing.”