Storm of the Century: Bearwallow Mountain in 1993

Winter weather has returned to western North Carolina. Snow and ice make traveling treacherous. Frigid temperatures with bone-chilling winds force most of us indoors and out of the elements. A high-elevation mountaintop may seem like the most unappealing place to venture during a winter storm—unless it’s your home.

High atop Bearwallow Mountain in eastern Henderson County, the North Carolina Forest Service hosts a fire lookout tower. The steel tower, nearly 50 feet high, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937, and for the past six decades, it has been an instrumental tool for rapid fire detection in Buncombe, Henderson, and Rutherford Counties. The Forest Service stationed a lookout person atop the mountain year-round. Upon spotting smoke in the valleys below or on distant peaks, the person radioed the coordinates to the nearest fire department. Because of the fire tower's quick detection, a rapid response to the scene ensured that small forest fires were controlled before they developed into devastating infernos.

I recently visited Judy Tuten, of Hendersonville, who staffed the fire tower atop Bearwallow Mountain during the early 1990s. Judy, her husband John and their son Jesse lived at the summit for six years; they adopted a small house adjacent to the tower as their home. Judy graciously shared with me many tales of her amazing experiences during the time she and her family spent on the mountain. In fact, her tales are so numerous, I must save many of them for their own stories in the future. Among all of her experiences on Bearwallow, her most memorable occurred in March 1993. Many long-time western North Carolina residents will never forget that month. Judy is one of them.

I commonly hear residents refer to last year’s frequent snowfall and cold temperatures as “a bad winter.” Many suggest that this year’s early winter weather is a sign of another severe season to come. But those who remember the winter of 1993 will chuckle at the notion that others consider recent winters so harsh when compared to that unforgettable season nearly twenty years back.

In March of that year the jet stream dipped unusually far south, bringing with it frigid air from Canada. It reached the Gulf of Mexico, where it picked up ample moisture before looping northward across the eastern part of the United States. This meteorological anomaly made conditions poised for one of the most severe winter storms in our region's history. 

Atop Bearwallow Mountain, Judy and her family weathered out what was later termed the “Storm of the Century” in one of the least hospitable places imaginable. At 4,232 feet above sea level, Bearwallow is one of the highest peaks in eastern Henderson County. It receives exponentially greater winds at its elevation than those experienced in the valleys below. The mountain also forms part of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, where the Blue Ridge range rises abruptly from the Piedmont in the east. This topographic barrier acts like a wall against which approaching storms traveling north from the Gulf of Mexico slow and release the bulk of their moisture.

From the fire tower at Bearwallow, Judy communicated daily by radio with the airport to obtain the fire danger level and weather reports. She recalled the airport asking her, “Are you ready for a big snow? This one is going to be serious.” But no one could have predicted the severity with which the storm would impact the region.

A full-fledged blizzard slammed into western North Carolina on March 12 and it didn't relent for two whole days. Record low temperatures and barometer readings were registered across the southern Appalachians. Our region received more than two feet of snowfall.

As expected, Bearwallow was hammered by the blizzard. Complicating the mountain's geographic location and high elevation, a grassy bald occupies its summit. No trees are present to break the gale force winds.  “You couldn't even stand up outside. You actually had to crawl, the wind was so strong,” said Judy. She admits concerns about the house itself staying anchored to the mountain during the storm; the soil atop Bearwallow Mountain is only a few inches deep.

As if the intense winds and brutal snow accumulation weren't enough, Judy and her family were shocked to see streaks of lightning and hear booming thunder during the blizzard.  “The lightning was blue,” she remembered. Because lightning isn’t common during snowstorms, it was obvious this weather was truly out of the ordinary.  The Storm of the Century, as it became known, was exactly that.

Two days after the storm, the Tuten family emerged from their house. To their surprise, snow was completely absent from the top of the mountain. Since the summit lacks trees to block the wind, all of the snow had been blown into the forest—and up against their home. They discovered a snow drift piled up to the roof of their house. It completely buried their vehicles.  “It was eleven feet tall and two hundred feet long,” John Tuten recalled of the drift. Their nine-year-old son, Jesse, was able climb the drift and step right onto the top of the house.  He would utilize his sled on it for weeks to come.

They discovered the snowdrifts in the forest to be ten to twelve feet deep.  Their only access road off of the mountain was completely buried. It was a week until a bulldozer came to the rescue, traveling three miles up the road from Gerton in order to make it passable for the Tuten family to receive supplies. Once plowed, it formed a tunnel-like passage burrowed through 10-foot walls of snow on each of its sides. Judy remembered, “For months, it was like a bobsled run. The snow didn’t melt until May.”

When all was said and done, the Storm of the Century left western North Carolina devastated. It took weeks for residents to dig themselves out from under the record snowfall totals. The blizzard resulted in an estimated $75 million in damages to the region and claimed a dozen lives. More than 100,000 people were left without power. Judy remembers looking out from the mountain and seeing darkness across the valleys. “There were probably only one-third of the lights that we would normally see,” she said.

In spite of Bearwallow receiving its full brunt, the Tutens endured the storm unscathed. Though the event was unnerving at the time, Judy admits it was her favorite experience during all of the years she spent atop the mountain.

Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy holds a conservation easement on 81 acres at the summit of Bearwallow Mountain, including the mountaintop bald that surrounds the fire tower. CMLC is currently working toward the conservation of more than 470 acres at the top of Bearwallow. Stay tuned for more tales from Bearwallow Mountain.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20120101/NEWS/111239980/0/search?p=all&tc=pgall

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