Colorado Shelf Cloud Beauty

September 21st, 2014 began as a beautiful first day of fall in Colorado. I was attending college classes at Metropolitan State University of Denver at the time. There was a marginal risk for severe storms in eastern Colorado later, but I was so swamped with my school schedule and classes that day that I knew I wouldn’t be able to get out and chase.

However, when walking across campus during my transition between classes in the early afternoon, I looked to my east and saw a large, billowing cumulus tower in the distance. I stopped dead in my tracks. It really didn’t look too far away to catch up to. I glanced at my watch. I had one last class to attend, and it was Chemistry. I pondered for a moment. Against my better judgment, I decided to skip the class, run to my car, and dart east on I-70 to try to catch up to the storm.

I chased this storm without radar or service, without anything other than visual clues and instinct. Thankfully I know eastern CO roads pretty well, so navigating close to the storm wasn’t difficult. I arrived to the storm as it began to sculpt and show some pretty, striated structure.

While the storm was clearly outflow dominant at this stage in its lifecycle, it was a beautiful storm that I had nearly to myself, except for a few chasers I happened to cross paths with briefly on otherwise desolate dirt roads.

Prettier and prettier this storm became, as the light from the setting sun began to highlight the beautiful texture of the cloud layers. These photos were taken near the little town of Cope, Colorado, which is just north of Burlington and I-70. There were a few times the storm attempted to wrap up a small little mesocyclone, and a storm spotter reported a brief tornadic touchdown, which I imagine was nothing more than a dust swirl at the surface. I never caught a glimpse of it.

I continued to follow along with the storm as it moved slowly eastward across the quiet and open Colorado prairie. I felt truly in my element. I wasn’t obsessively checking a radar screen or trying to film or worrying about service. I simply breathed it all in. It was my first true storm chase outside of my own back yard. I’d done some local spotting around Denver, Colorado Springs, and other metropolitan areas along the Front Range since about 2012, but this was my first true chase outside of that realm.

I was such a new chaser back then, I didn’t really know a whole lot about pursuing storms on the plains far from home. But I went out there and just followed my instincts, visual storm clues, and my heart. It led me to some beautiful scenes that day. This chase holds a special place in my heart, not only because it was my first “real” storm chase, but because I did it on my own. I proved to myself that I could really do this storm chasing thing, after a few years of doubting myself and being too afraid to embark on a journey to the plains. It was an empowering experience.

From this chase onward, I was captivated. Hooked. I needed more. I spent that entire fall season chasing locally around Colorado and studying up on the meteorology and chasing concepts I knew I needed to learn in order to chase safely and successfully. Then, when spring 2015 rolled around, that was my first year of big leagues chasing in the central and southern plains. And it was also the year of my first ever tornado. Stay tuned for my next blog post for the recap of that amazing chase!

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