billy barr: The Snow Guardian of the Colorado Rocky Mountains

billy barr growing his garden inside his Gothic cabin
billy barr growing his garden inside his Gothic cabin
billy barr growing his garden inside his Gothic cabin – Photo by Aaron Colussi for 5280 Magazine

In the shadow of the West Elk Mountains, slightly north of Crested Butte, lies the ghost town of Gothic, Colorado. In the 1880s, Gothic was a thriving silver mining town, with around 200 buildings and almost 1,000 natives. Yet as the silver dwindled, so did the residents. By 1914, there was only one permanent resident left – Garwood Judd, the subject of a 1928 film called “The Man Who Stayed.”

In 1928, the town was bought and made home to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). Today there are just a handful of residents in the area. And one who is known as “The Snow Guardian of the Rockies.” As a young student researcher, billy barr took a short-term job at the RMBL in the early 1970s. By 1973 he was the only permanent resident of Gothic.

A year into his stay in Gothic, barr started to document the weather, mainly as a way to pass the time. For more than 40 winters, he has kept meticulous notes on the behavior of the snow in the area. Twice a day, barr collects information on snowfalls, temperatures, and the animals which come in and out of his area of the Rockies.

What started as a mere hobby for barr has today become scientific gold. His data is sent to groups such as Colorado Avalanche Information Center, to help more accurately predict the winters. He has also been referenced in many scientific journals, research papers, and it has aided the way that scientists chart the magnitude of Climate Chaos.

Featured in a short film by National Geographic, billy barr has some knowledge to impart to us on how to survive the seemingly unsurvivable.

“It’s like anything else. I learned to ski to get around. I learned how to ski better so I wouldn’t fall down all the time. Over a period of time, I kinda learned how to survive in this environment. Actually, learning to fall is probably the most important thing. If you’re gonna fall, sit. It’s a lot easier falling on your butt than on your face.”