Well, two percent is better than zero percent!
I had been looking forward to today’s chase for the past couple days, even moving a rental house showing to accommodate it. Clearly I have my priorities aligned. I ran into one small snag though. I didn’t sleep the night before. At all.
I hate when this happens, but thankfully it’s infrequent. Right before bed my brain will go into overdrive and I stay up all night thinking about something that happened earlier that day. That’s probably something that happens to most people, but then I end up dwelling on some sort of contrived alternative scenario for something that might have happened that day. Weird.
Tonight’s worry was mostly the rental house application we’d submitted. The house is in Castle Rock which about 16-20 miles south from our current apartment, and we’re a little concerned about commute times. We haven’t been having much luck finding a (affordable) house that works for us in Denver. This house is also on the higher end of our budget to rent, but it does help us get rid of our overpriced storage unit.
But I’m straying from the point. I tossed and turned until sunrise, then went to breakfast with Heather before she went to work. I got home, quickly checked forecast models, and decided tentatively on Kit Carson for my target and passed out. It was about 8:15 in the morning.
I woke up just after noon and really had to stop and think about whether I wanted to chase, or even if I should chase. I was really tired and exhaustion can lead to mistakes. Also I didn’t want to drive out to the middle of nowhere and then talk myself out of chasing and want to go home. That’d be a waste of a day and gas.
So I got on the computer and saw that I had a Facebook message from Tara Kiehn about today’s marginal risk setup, asking if was in Colorado. I replied that I was in town and where I was considering going.
“Just because I’m waaaaay more noobish than you, what keeps you from the NE Colorado target?” Tara asked.
Um. Uh. What target?
I got back on Pivotal Weather and started looking at the NAM again. I was more awake this time so I saw what she was talking about pretty quickly. Sheer values looked much better up to the northeast, especially near Fleming. CAPE values were solid too. I’m still trying to get my head around upslope/DCVZ chases as opposed to the more cut and dry Great Plains setups, so I assumed lift wouldn’t not be a problem today.
She was right, northeast Colorado looked like a better target. Who’s the noob now?
I told her she was right, and said I was going to get myself together and head out towards Fleming. She asked if I wanted to team up. Sure! I’ve never had an actual chase partner before 1 so I was excited. This meant that we could split responsibilities, which might help compensate for my sleep deprivation. We agreed to meet at my apartment and take my car to save on gas. Caravanning was an option, but I kinda think the whole thing is a bit awkward without a decent quick communication method. Constantly calling each other on cell phones seems like it would be distracting during a chase. Driving together also meant we could talk, and what better thing to talk about than chasing!
Tara showed up around 1PM and we packed up and headed out of Denver. We were just passing Wiggins when she mentioned her meteorologist friend who’d told her earlier that northeast Colorado looked like a good target today.
“You have a meteorologist friend? I need a meteorologist friend.” I said.
Tara explained that her friend was actually a met student. She also hadn’t met her in person yet. Her friend was headed out our way, and Tara asked if I was interested in teaming up. No problems here, the more the merrier!
We stopped near Wiggins to have a snack, stretch, and check local weather conditions. There was a solid looking outflow boundary on Radarscope due east of us, and it looked like a great place to camp near. Tara said her friend was pretty close to us and asked if we wanted to wait for her. I initially wanted to, but I was also eyeing the storms going up around us and was worried that we’d end up right underneath them. 2 I decided that I wanted to keep going northeast to Fort Morgan where maybe we could grab a quick lunch to take with us. Her friend could catch up with us there. However I completely blew past Fort Morgan and so we stopped just off I-76 near the Atwood exit.
Tara’s friend got there a few minutes later, Her name is Jaime Firster, and she is a meteorology student attending the University of Northern Colorado. She opted to caravan with us instead of leaving her car somewhere. I don’t blame her; we had no nearby good options where she could leave it safely . We also had chase opportunities immediately near us which helped decide the matter.
The supercell to our southwest was small, but rotation looked good on radar. The northern storm was much larger and was more visually appealing target, but it was confusing the crap out of me. Every time the radar updated, the cell would be moving a wildly different direction. The cell was moving east, then south, no…wait, west! I realized that it wasn’t actually moving at all, it was sitting on the outflow boundary and appeared to be backbuilding. To made it more interesting the entire base of the storm seemed to change its orientation while we were watching it, a new phenomenon for me. We went from looking into the storm from the southeast to having to reposition southwest miles back the way we came. We stopped on a dirt road to watch it just northeast of Hillrose, but had some problems making out structure and decided to get closer. We drove north about a mile and stopped directly in front of it.
Now the structure looked really good. We watched it for almost fifteen minutes. Rotation was hard to discern because of the lighting, and at one point scud moving rapidly under the base had me straining my eyes looking for a tornado. Nothing came of it. Eventually it became apparent that the small supercell now due south of us was rapidly moving north and was about to be ingested by our storm. Being underneath it when that happened didn’t seem wise.
Small problem; we had no good southern road options where we were located. We need to get back on I-76, but I was concerned that if we headed back northeast towards Atwood, we’d run the risk of the storm shifting back at us (which it did). Going southwest was out; we would definitely end up getting cored. Bah. Northeast it is. I wondered how Jaime felt about her car and hail. I’m getting used to having to deal with hail, but she might not like her SUV getting beat up.
We turned around and got back on I-76, heading northeast for Atwood but immediately entered a construction zone.
- Double fines and people on the road. Crap.
- Storm direction has shifted southeast, right at us. Double crap.
- I went a little faster than I should have and we lost Jaime. Crap³.
The storm started to move over us and it rained but that was about it. We got to our exit soon after and turned south toward Akron. We drove a few miles, then pulled over to let Jaime catch up. I hoped she’d missed the hail core, which I could see on radar now moving over the highway. She caught up a couple minutes later and we headed south as fast as we could.
I pulled over a few miles later so I could talk with Jaime about chasing comfort levels. Tara and I had already discussed this before we’d met her, but I wasn’t sure where Jaime stood.
What am I talking about? Do you care? If not, feel free to scroll past the section below!
Every chaser has (or should have) an idea when it comes to “How close is too close.” As a newer chaser, my idea is still being fleshed out, but I error heavily on the side of caution.
If you care, here’s my current comfort level, and my “do not cross” lines, in an overused bullet point format.
- I’m new and I know I have a lot to learn. I’m not interested in pushing too far too fast and getting injured, losing my vehicle or equipment, or even dying.
- I mostly chase solo. I think it’s a little easier to get distracted and lose situational awareness when you’re juggling radar, navigation, driving, photography, escape options, etc. by yourself. That limits how close I want to get until I have some more experience under my belt.
- I don’t chase tornadoes at night; once the sun goes down I’m done. I *might* make a small exception if there was a tornado already on the ground and I knew exactly where it was. Even then I’m probably going to stay put and then move directly away from it if I lost visibility (i.e no power flashes or lightning backlighting the tornado). This is still risky and I’m approaching it on a case-by-case basis.
- I don’t chase in cities, period. I missed something like four additional tornadoes because I wouldn’t pursue the Dodge City storm(s) through the city. Cities mean people, and untrained people faced suddenly with a tornado could do crazy things and get me hurt or killed. Chaser convergences are bad enough. No thanks!
- I like shooting storm structure as well as tornadoes. Even when I see a tornado, I like to be back a bit to catch surrounding storm structure.
- I want to enjoy my hobby, not be shit scared of it.
- I’ve had a lot of success chasing closer than I originally planned, which has slowly increased my comfort level.
- If I was chasing with a much more experienced chaser that I trusted, my comfort level would probably be higher. This hasn’t happened yet.
- My car is already beat up with hail dings, so I don’t stress as hard about hail anymore as long as it isn’t softballs/grapefruits falling out of the sky.
- My idea of “close” is nothing when compared to how people like Scott Peake, Reed Timmer, Hank Schyma, Dan Robinson, or even Skip Talbot chase. These guys have experience and knowledge to understand what they’re getting into.
- Even then no matter how much experience you have, mistakes can be made.
So that’s me, and it’s a question I’ll ask to anyone I plan on chasing with. I don’t want to drag people over comfort zones they’ve set up, and I wouldn’t want them to do it to me. We’re here to enjoy this!
Sorry for the sidetrack, back to my regularly scheduled rambling.
Jaime was fine with our current plan, which was to head south to Akron and see what presented itself. The oncoming storms appeared to be transitioning into a linear mode, which meant that we were going to have to accept getting hit by them at some point. Jaime noted that the storms due west of us were noticeably weaker, so we could wait and let them pass over us with little fear of hail.
We drove another five or so miles when Tara noticed some rotation on radar back to the northwest. We stopped on a dirt road to look behind us. What we saw was lightning. Lots of it.
The rotation we saw on radar? That’s right in the middle of that rain shaft in the center of the above GIF.
We watched all of the storms converge on us from the relative safety of our vehicles for about ten minutes, hoping for a tornado. We finally had to keep moving to avoid that stronger supercell still following us from the northwest.
Once we hit Akron, we lost Jaime again. Tara and I headed about a mile south out of Akron and parked on a dirt road in between two hail signatures on radar. The storm moved over us and while it was very windy and rainy, it was no real concern. We talked about what we were going to do next, since this was really the only storm with any potential near us. Everything else was way too far south or north. It’d be dark before we got to any of them, and they’d most likely be gusting out at that point.
Then the storm that just passed us went tornado warned just to the northeast, right where we’d seen that rotation earlier. Holy shit!
We got excited and drove back to Akron, then east in pursuit. We had to stop pretty quickly though. There was a large hail core in front of us and we couldn’t see through it. It was too risky to punch through, since that’s where the rotation was indicated currently.
Turning around, we drove a quarter mile back past this building.
We stopped next to the Washington County Sheriff Department and just stared eastward, trying to see through the rain and hail. Because we were on the outskirts of town, radar updates were inconsistent and when they did come in they showed nothing conclusive. Was there a tornado in there or not?
We never found out, but no one else confirmed a tornado either. I think NWS doppler radar detected a TVS 3 briefly, probably the same rotation we saw earlier, and warned it to be safe. They never extended the warning, and we sat there until it expired. But we were thrilled to have intercepted the only tornado-warned storm in Colorado for that day.
Tara called Jaime to see where she was. Jaime told us she’d stayed in Akron when the storms rolled over us, and said she was calling it a day. About fifteen minutes Tara and I gathered our nerve and drove through the core into Otis, CO., then turned south to find a road heading east so we could get ahead of things again.
We did run into hail briefly but it was small. However it was raining so hard that hydroplaning became a real concern so I had to slow down. Once we broke through the core we cheered, only to be confronted with some sort of huge farming equipment taking up most of the road ahead of us. The driver saw us and got far enough over that we could squeak by, but the back of his equipment (a plow maybe?) swung towards the car suddenly and made both of us jump.
Continuing south, Tara found us a county road that was still dry, so we checked it out.
We didn’t get too far. After a could of twists and turns our road dead ended and that marked the end of our chase. It was starting to get late and neither of us had eaten in awhile. We turned around and headed back, stopping to take some pictures of the departing storms which were now beautifully lit by the setting sun.
We stopped in Fort Morgan at Sonic for dinner, then headed home. I hit something in the road (part of a tree?) so we pulled off in Brighton to check under the car. I didn’t see anything, but it was too rainy so I decided to look the next day.
Today was a great day, in spite of the lack of tornadoes. I had a great time and I probably babbled way too much. Tara and Jaime were both great chase partners.
- Having a chase partner is pretty cool.
- Having a chase partner did distract me a little, and I forgot to keep up with the little things, like cleaning the windshield for the dashcam. Not really a big deal, but I had to delete a bunch of blurry footage thanks to my dumb cell phone dashcam and its constant autofocus problems. I’ve got to replace this thing with a camcorder or something that has a manual focus.
- I also forgot to take more radar screenshots again, including the tornado warned storm. Doh!
- Don’t delete “boring” footage right after getting home. I went to make a Youtube video (embedded below) with our chase footage and I almost didn’t have enough I could use for transitions to match the song. Kind of silly, but whatever.
- Eat before chasing! I went a little too long without eating today. Tara saved me by bringing some protein bars but rations were slim for both of us today.
- Outflow boundaries rule.