Bill Sniffin: Welcome To Siberia – Wyoming’s Winter Body Count Has Been High

Bill Sniffin writes: If you made a movie about this years Wyoming winter, it would have to be a survival story. There have been so many great rescue stories but also some awful accident stories.

Bill Sniffin

March 05, 20236 min read

Bill Sniffin lots of snow 1 16 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

If you made a movie about this year’s Wyoming winter, it would have to be a survival story.

There have been so many great rescue stories but also some awful accident stories. The worst was the deaths of five high school kids on Interstate 80 east of Rawlins. Another horrible death was when a semitruck collided with an ambulance killing a young man who left behind his wife and three kids.

The body count has been extraordinary with at least four wrecks each killing a pair of siblings. I just cannot imagine the devastating level of grief these events have caused.

Also, that multiple vehicle accident on Interstate 80 in early winter killed one but caused countless numbers of injuries and a staggering amount of damage.

And Now Some Good News

One of the feel-good stories this winter was how the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) lined up convoys of buses full of high school athletes and had them trail behind snowplows to sites where state basketball and wrestling tournaments were being held. These kids and their parents and coaches will never forget this winter!

Another one was the snow plow driver who after his 12-hour shift provided tacos and donuts to stranded truckers.

WYDOT has been criticized on some sites for seemingly being a little quick on the trigger to close major roads. I support WYDOT totally. 

One of the great new innovations is electronic signboards that stretch all the way along the interstate highways. This way, a truck driver coming across Utah can find out that Wyoming is closed and it gives him or her time to veer south and take Interstate 70 and even way south (away from the snow) to Interstate 40.

That long detour is still better than spending a week in a truckers’ lounge in Evanston, Rock Springs, or Cheyenne.

WYDOT may have set a record recently when four snowplows and a wrecker were all stranded in Carbon County in the 48 inches of fresh snow.

On South Pass this past week, more than $9,000 in fines were levied on drivers who chose to drive around the highway closed signs. That might be a record, too.

Movie Would Look Like Siberia

The ice-cold barren slopes of Siberia in the movie “Dr. Zhivago” do not have anything up on the high plains of Wyoming this winter.

My wife’s and my favorite all-time movie is the 1965 David Lean masterpiece about the Russian revolution 106 years ago. As you look out across the vast winter expanses of our wonderful state, well, it is a sea of white with blizzards of snow blowing across it just like Siberia.

We always watch this wonderful movie during winter but, alas, just have not been able to bring ourselves to watch it so far this year. The movie features some of the best “cold” scenes ever put on the screen. 

Do you remember who the stars were in the movie? Omar Sharif and Julie Christie plus Rod Steiger and Alec Guinness were spectacular. The real stars were the Russian frigid countryside and the cold weather. A great, great love story set during a time of great political upheaval. Why not? Go ahead and curl up on the couch together and watch it. It is just such a great movie. And this is the perfect time to watch it.

Hard To Dig Out

Perhaps the greatest jade finder in Wyoming has lately been having trouble just getting out of his driveway. He lives near Red Canyon along South Pass. This is a notorious stretch in winter.

Dave Freitag wrote: “Some 24 years ago I bought this land up here in Red Canyon. In all this time I have never witnessed blowing snow covering Wyotah and Sage Roads to the depth that I seen yesterday as I went to town to get gas for my snowplow. The drifts were as tall as my new snow tires with some places up to waist deep in valley dips.

“It was a good thing that I left when I did because my neighbor had just finished his first run down the road and back in his skid steer with a plow creating a one lane tunnel to Red Canyon Road. This was hard drifted snow and even though my Battle Tank Snowplow is chained up on all 4 tires, I don’t think that I would have been able to punch through those drifts. The battle continues again today. May God be with our backs.”

Up in Buffalo, Jim Hicks writes: “Last week was just one more chapter in the growing stories about the winter of 2022-23. Interstate highway closures are setting records on one particular day when someone in the Highway Department announced ‘you can’t get to Wyoming today . . . all roads are closed.’

“At times it appeared Buffalo has become the parking lot for most of the long-haul semitrucks in the western part of the country. Sometimes the weather has been ‘decent’ here while Interstate 25 south to Casper has remained closed.

“Anyone who had driven the highway in the Midwest area can see why that would happen. All that is required is a strong wind to start another ground blizzard. And this winter has been a hard one for local ranches, especially for early calving or lambing.”

The Word ‘Blizzard’

You could assume the word “blizzard” has always been around to describe the kind of winter weather we have been enduring and the wind-swept roads that we travel along with trepidation this winter.

Not so.

The use of the word blizzard to describe a winter storm was first used by a reporter in the Estherville, Iowa, newspaper called The Northern Vindicator in 1870. Prior to that it was used as a military term meaning to “blaze away” at the enemy. Some of this information comes from a column written by my very first editor Dick Gilbert of Iowa.

We used to live in western Iowa and, although tame by Wyoming’s Interstate 80 standards, their snowstorms could be fierce.

The good news is that the days are getting longer and the official first day of spring is just a few weeks away. The bad news, though, as we all know, is that winter does not like to give up its grip on Wyoming. In this wind, hold onto your hats. You can bet there is a lot more wintry weather to come.  

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.