Big winter coming up? Well, you know, maybe | AspenTimes.com

Big winter coming up? Well, you know, maybe

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The best reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming ski season?

?It’s been pouring rain in Aspen.

?The Farmer’s Almanac is calling for a big winter.

?It’s already snowed on the high peaks in Colorado.

?It’s been dumping on ski areas in the Andes.

?United Airlines is still flying.

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?There is pent-up demand for skiing.

OK, is all that too upbeat for you?

Here, then, are the best reasons to be pessimistic about the upcoming ski season.

?War with Iraq seems likely.

?Another terrorist attack is coming.

?The economy is still tanking.

?People are either scared of flying or so over the hassle.

?Global warming is real.

?The Farmer’s Almanac, on closer inspection, is actually calling for a light snow year in the Central Rockies.

Yes, we know, we know, it is way too soon to really tell much about this winter, but there are few telltale signs worth watching.

First, the relatively hard numbers.

Bookings at Stay Aspen Snowmass through the first 10 days of September were up 9 percent over the first 10 innocent days of September 2001.

“It is off to a strong early start, but the numbers will fluctuate wildly,” said Bill Tomcich, president and chief number cruncher at Stay Aspen Snowmass.

Right now, for example, reservations are up from last year, but the total number of bookings is so small that the increase amounts to only 40 more reservations for Aspen/Snowmass than a year ago.

But, hey, it’s a start.

Now for some softer, more gut feelings.

Klaus Obermeyer, the king of Sport Obermeyer, thinks we’re going to have a big year.

“I think it is going to be a great year,” Obermeyer said, nearly breaking out in an optimistic yodel. “We had a great ski season last year and we only had 60 percent of our normal snowfall. And so if we get only 70 percent this year, think how good it will be.”

And Klaus is not the only one going with his gut this fall.

Mark Uhlfelder of Ski.com and Aspen Ski Tours senses snow in the air.

“It feels to me like we might have a good snow year,” Uhlfelder said between phone calls. “We’re due.”

But the director of the National Weather Service isn’t quite so optimistic.

“The picture is not real rosy to see major change in the West,” said Jack Kelly, referring to the long dry spell in the West this spring and summer.

And while the El Nino weather pattern is in effect, it is not expected to be as strong as the 1997-98 season, which was the last big snow year in Aspen/Snowmass.

El Nino includes a warming of the large area of water in the tropical Pacific, a change which influences wind and weather patterns passing over the area and can have impacts worldwide.

“The El Nino conditions that have persisted for months will be at moderate strength through the end of 2002 and into early 2003,” said Conrad C. Lautenbacher, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the weather service’s parent agency.

NOAA’s weather outlook is calling for below-normal precipitation from December through February in the northern Rockies and above-average precipitation is the southern parts of the United States, which on some days does seem to include Aspen, Colo., located in the weather limbo of the Central Rockies.

But ski-area operators are an optimistic bunch, and The Denver Post reported in late August that the state’s ski areas have declined for the most part to purchase snow insurance this season.

“We are not even looking at it as this point,” Vail spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga told the Post.

And then there is the Farmer’s Almanac.

“We are predicting a rough winter, with severe weather patterns that gradually shift eastward as the winter progresses,” writes Caleb Weatherbee, the Almanac’s fictional forecaster.

Great.

But, a closer look for the regional Rocky Mountain forecast isn’t too heartening for skiers and snowboarders.

“Winter will be milder than normal, with midwinter temperatures averaging five degrees above normal,” the Almanac said. “Although precipitation will be above normal, most of the region will have below-normal snowfall. Most snow will be localized, with more-widespread snow in early and late February.”

Oh, fine. So, what’s “localized” snow, anyway? Snow that’s been skied out?

In the end, who knows?

But we’re going with Klaus’ take on the season: “There are nothing but damn good reasons to be happy to live here and look forward to a great season.”

Works for us.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com]

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