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Though a massive blizzard threatens to lengthen their marathon bus ride home from Washington, D.C., local youths finished the March for Life with only a few snowflakes on their hats.

The 131 high school students and chaperones from the Catholic Diocese of Bismarck departed the nation's capital Friday afternoon, 24 hours before they originally planned to due to the storm. The National Weather Service anticipates the city's streets will fill with 2 feet of snow this weekend.

The skies held back for most of the students' stay. Snow started to fall one-third of the way into the 2-mile walk down the National Mall to protest abortion. The march takes place each year near the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States.

"It's a lot warmer than at home," said Abbie Morlock, a senior at St. Mary's Central High School.

The temperature at the National Mall hovered just above 30 degrees Friday afternoon.

Classmate Nathan Marcotte said, despite the looming storm, the march marked the highlight of the trip because students participated alongside thousands of others their age with the same view on abortion.

"There was nothing holding us back," he said.

The students rolled into Washington, D.C., on buses Wednesday night. Already, there were 2 inches of snow on the ground, and it took them three hours to travel 11 miles in the Washington traffic.

The group spent Thursday attending Mass and sightseeing, and they went to a conference hosted by the Diocese of Arlington.

Students celebrated Mass on Friday with Fargo Bishop John Folda, then made use of free time before the main event. Many flocked to Smithsonian museums until the facilities shut their doors at noon in anticipation of the blizzard.

Next came a rally under the overcast sky. Prominent anti-abortion activists addressed the crowd, which was smaller than usual this year as many people canceled trips to Washington due to weather concerns.

Nevertheless, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina fired up the audience with a speech about this year's theme, "Pro-Life and Pro-Woman."

"She said she will do everything in her power if she is elected," Morlock said.

St. Mary's students led the march of 500,000 people last year with peers from Fargo's Shanley High School. This year, they were near the front again carrying a school banner clearly visible to anyone snapping a photo of the crowd.

When the march ended at 2:15 p.m., they filed onto buses. Religious studies teacher Nick Emmel said the drivers are from North Dakota and Minnesota, so they're accustomed to navigating icy roads.

It's a different story, however, for East Coast natives. Traveling on the interstate at 4 p.m., Emmel said he had already seen three cars in the ditch. Two inches of snow had accumulated by that hour.

He said grocery store shelves were empty in Washington as residents stocked up on food in case they become home-bound for several days.

"The gas stations are running low on fuel because people are responding very reactively to the snow," he said.

Emmel anticipates the buses will arrive in Bismarck late Saturday night, assuming they don't get stuck.

Speaking on his cell phone late Friday afternoon, he was optimistic that traffic would let up. Vehicles leaving Washington on the interstate were traveling a steady 10 to 15 mph as snow hit their windshields.

"We're just taking it real slow," he said.

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(Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8267 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.)

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