ASPEN - If the storm that brought as much as 15 inches of snow to the Aspen area on Dec. 8 was a godsend, Tuesday and Wednesday's 8 to 12 inches could be deemed a blessing of similar magnitude.
The snow allowed Aspen Skiing Co. to open a lot of terrain on Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk. It improved the snowpack throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. It brought a flood of calls to local hotels and lodges as well as reservations firm Stay Aspen-Snowmass. It filled buses from downvalley to Aspen as well as the skier shuttles that run from Rubey Park to the four resorts.
At the same time, it forced Basalt and Woody Creek schools to give students, faculty and staff a day off, caused at least one accident on Highway 82 and interrupted scheduled landings and departures at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
With two big storms in an 11-day span, Aspen and the valley appear to be returning to their old winter ways, allaying many fears that the upcoming season would mirror last year's ultra-dry conditions.
At 2 p.m. Wednesday, an exuberant Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen-Snowmass, said his office was busier fielding calls than it had been earlier in the week.
The effect of a big storm, in terms of luring visitors to Aspen and Snowmass Village, is more cumulative than instantaneous, he said.
"We're absolutely thrilled to see the snow," Tomcich said. "We were excited to have Channel 9 News (KUSA-Denver) broadcasting from the base of Aspen Mountain and the snow-covered streets of Aspen this morning with a feed to NBC and The Weather Channel.
"We are steadily building momentum. It's so great to feel the great vibe and excitement that is contagious throughout our entire office. People are just giddy about how much snow is falling. That kind of enthusiasm comes across over the telephone, and it's something you can't really manufacture without the real thing."
Tomcich said he expects the period between Christmas and New Year's Day to be busier than the same period last year.
The much-needed snowfall had other effects on the area, as well. Though Aspen's public-schools complex off Maroon Creek Road remained open Wednesday, Basalt Elementary, Middle and High schools were closed.
Aspen Community School in Woody Creek also enjoyed a day off. Aspen Country Day School, located temporarily on the Aspen Institute campus in the West End, went about its day somewhat normally, an employee said.
John Hocker, director of operations for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, said bus operations were relatively smooth across the valley. A few buses ran late because of the snow, high winds and traffic slowdowns. No accidents occurred.
"I thought considering (the conditions) that things went rather well," he said. "There was standing room only on many of the buses. Up and down the valley, we had more riders than usual."
To accommodate extra passengers from downvalley to Aspen, as well as more skiers shuttling from Rubey Park to the ski areas, RFTA added seven more buses to its rotation Wednesday, Hocker said.
Tomcich said the weather created some issues for the airport. The snow and winds made for poor visibility Wednesday morning.
Skywest Airlines, which flies into Aspen for United Express, experienced several cancellations of Denver and Chicago flights. An inbound flight from Los Angeles and one from Chicago were diverted to Grand Junction. An inbound flight from Houston was stuck in an hour-long holding pattern but eventually landed.
Also, an American Airlines inbound flight from Los Angeles was delayed by more than three hours.
By early afternoon, conditions improved, Tomcich said. Flight loads were generally light on Wednesday, he added.
As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, Skico reported a 24-hour snowfall of 12 inches at Snowmass, 6 inches at Aspen Mountain, 11 inches at Aspen Highlands and 8 inches at Buttermilk. The snowfall in Aspen had tapered off by midafternoon.
The National Weather Service forecast through Sunday calls for sunny skies and no chance of precipitation. Though it was cold Wednesday night, with a wind chill of minus 8 at 7 p.m., the forecast suggests a warming trend through the weekend and normal seasonal temperatures.
The most recent snowfall was a boost to below-normal area snowpack. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency, measures snow at seven automated sites around the Roaring Fork Valley. The overall snowpack was as low as 40 percent of average recently. As of noon Tuesday, it was up to 60 percent of average.
On Independence Pass, the snowpack was 56 percent of average Wednesday. In the Crystal River drainage, snowpack at three sites exceeded 60 percent. It was highest at Schofield Pass at 68 percent. North Lost Trail outside Marble showed a snowpack that was 64 percent of average. McClure Pass came in at 60 percent.
The sites in the Fryingpan River drainage were among the lowest in the Roaring Fork River basin. Nast Lake was at 45 percent of average. The Kiln site was 48 percent of average. No reading was available from Ivanhoe.