Less than two months ago, people were wearing shorts and T-shirts, fearing that the 2007-08 ski season was going to be a bust. Now it’s one for the record books as total snow accumulation is on track to match or exceed the biggest years in Aspen’s history.
“I called it in August when I saw that wide stripe on the caterpillar and the thistles were growing toward the railroad track instead of away,” said Clancy, an Aspen firefighter and a bartender at the Double Dog Brew Pub who is in his 21st season in Aspen. “And when you have that combination, you know it’s going to be good … It pays to look at the bugs.”
Showing a dismal 11 inches in November, the 2007-08 ski season was poised to be as tragic as the winter of the 1976-77 drought. Then it started snowing, with the first big dump Dec. 2 bringing more than a foot of snow.
“It was like someone turned on the light switch,” said Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol Director Mac Smith. “It went from nothing to game on.”
Total snow accumulation thus far is a little more than 80 inches in town, according to Jim Markalunas, who keeps weather records at both his West End home and the city’s water department.
The 1964-65 ski season holds the record for the most snow that has ever fallen in Aspen, with a total accumulation of 219 inches.
“This is phenomenal. It’s been a long time since we’ve had this much snow,” Markalunas said. “We’ve received half of our annual average, which is 152 inches.”
Snow conditions on the four mountains haven’t been this good in more than two decades, locals say.
“It’s been so much fun,” said Bob Daniel, who has lived here for 20 years. “What’s unusual is this much snow at this time of the year.”
December alone brought 118 inches on top of the mountain, according to the Aspen Skiing Co. More than 15 feet of snow has fallen on the ski areas so far this season. The mountains already have surpassed the monthly average snowfall for January, with nearly 50 inches this month.
Longtime locals often point to the 1983-84 season as the most epic winter they can remember, which brought 278 inches in town and 325 inches on the ski mountains, according to records. That winter, 1983-84, delivered more snowfall in town than any other winter since the city has kept such records.
Opening day of 1983 was a powder day, with 34 inches at the top of Aspen Mountain with 5 inches of fresh powder. Snowmass had 47 inches of snow at the top and 8 inches of powder. That season also had the heaviest early snow in history ” 55 inches fell during November 1983, according to Markalunas.
This season broke the December record and is set to surpass others. Within the last month, it has snowed 70 percent of the days, or 21 out of 30, according to the Skico.
“It’s been the best three weeks of my life,” said extreme skier Chris Davenport, who moved here during the ’93-94 season.
With this much snow even south-facing slopes ” typically sun-soaked ” are staying covered with the white stuff. It’s enabled Davenport and some friends last week to ski the face of Red Mountain, just above the million-dollar homes. Whether or not Davenport and his buddies hucked the Peak House on their descent is unknown.
There have been more powder days this season than some entire ski seasons in the past decade. For locals, big powder days are starting to blend together. The basic perception of most skiers is direct and to the point: It couldn’t be better.
Which is why so many locals can’t wipe the ear-to-ear grins off their faces.
“Just a few days ago I saw people limping down the street saying ‘I can’t take it anymore,'” said Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle. “People are just happy and excited.”
Smith, who is going on his 35th season in Aspen, said he’s been watching people at Highlands work themselves into exhaustion.
“At 2 p.m., people come off the mountain and they are done ” stick a fork in ’em,” he said.
Smith also remembers the ’83-84 season to be the biggest snow producer but there hasn’t been much to write home about since then.
“It’s better than anything we’ve had in the last 10 years,” Smith said. “Because we’ve had so many low-snow years, people are ecstatic.”
And finally Aspen looks and feels like a ski town again.
“Town looks like it’s supposed to look like, there’s snow everywhere,” Hanle said.
The snow is the buzz all over town, injecting good energy throughout the resort. Bars are filled at night with amped-up locals, sharing (and likely embellishing) their unforgettable experiences on the mountain.
“I believe there’s a direct relationship between the vibe of town and the snow,” Davenport said. “For people who work behind a desk, they are letting their work slide and, instead, having fun.”
That’s the case with one local business owner who was at Bentley’s this past weekend talking about the epic season over beers with other bar patrons.
“I can’t figure out when to stop smiling and go to work,” said Aaron Smith of Aspen Closets.
At Little Nell this past Sunday, Greg Simmons had just come off the mountain and was in awe of what he had just skied on Aspen Mountain.
“It’s ego snow,” he smiled.
With a wet, heavy dump early in December and continual snowfall in the past month, coupled with cold temperatures, the snow has stayed soft and light.
“Usually we have a thaw in January when conditions are soft and then it freezes up ” but not this year,” said Greg Hanle, a bartender at Mezzaluna and the brother of Skico’s Jeff Hanle.
Greg Hanle has kept copious notes on a calendar for every day he skied since he moved here nearly 29 years ago. And yes, the calendar says 1983-84 was a stellar year, but so is 2007-08 and it’s not even close to finished.
“It already is epic,” he said. “This is what we all moved here for.”
The first week of January brought back-to-back powder days. It started snowing Jan. 5 and didn’t let up for days. When the gondola opened on Sunday, Jan. 6, powder hounds who had lined up an hour prior pushed and shoved their way through in an effort to get one of the first buckets.
The three skiers who successfully got in the first gondola car raced Bell Mountain and got their first face shots. Laps on the F.I.S. chair kept on giving fresh tracks well into the morning, with locals, mostly skiing by themselves, hooting and hollering. Even a few giggles were heard in the lift lines.
“Even the hardened locals are getting tired of face shots,” said avid skier Billy Madsen, who grew up here. On that Jan. 6 powder day, Madsen said he remembers getting to Aspen Highlands in the afternoon. He jumped into G-4 at 2:30 p.m.
“I could hardly get there because there was so much snow,” he said. “Once I jumped in I was up to my armpits and it was fluffing up behind me. I stopped at the bottom, looked up and thought to myself, ‘that was fantastic.'”
Madsen he’s missed a lot of powder days this year because he’s been traveling, but he said the whole country is getting pelted with the white stuff.
“If this is global warming, bring it on,” he said.
Aspen Police Sgt. Rob Fabrocini rode up the Ajax Express chairlift Sunday, Jan. 13, and commented “I have lived here for 20 years and I don’t remember it ever being this good.”
But then longtime Aspenite Janine Troutman jogged Fabrocini’s memory and pointed out that in February 1993 it snowed for something like 32 days straight, which prompted newspaper stories about the effects of sun deprivation.
In fact, it snowed 119 inches in February of that year, according to the Skico. The ’92-93 season was no slouch on the whole; Skico recorded 361 inches that year.
“These seasons are like racehorses because one will keep getting in front of the other,” Smith said, adding so much snow so quickly has led to many operational challenges on the mountains. Managing the snow and controlling avalanches, particularly in and around Highland Bowl, has been a learning experience.
“We threw 1,000 [dynamite] charges on Highlands in three days,” Smith said, adding patrollers have been able to open the bowl every day the ski area has been open. “That’s cool. It’s so cool because you learn something new about doing this.”
Ever since it started dumping this year, locals have been referencing past seasons and comparing them to this year.
Smith remembers the 1977-78 season because it followed a drought year. It couldn’t have been better for former Aspen Highlands owner Whip Jones, who didn’t see many skiers on his mountain during the ’76-77 season.
“It snowed like 30 or 40 inches that next December, and I remember Whip got so drunk that we had to carry him out of the bar,” Smith laughed.
Said Markalunas of big snow years: “It’s either feast or famine.”
Big snow falling so quickly can present plenty of challenges. The city’s streets department has been working around the clock to clear the roads and locals have spent countless hours shoveling, either digging out their vehicles or removing the heavy stuff from driveways and roofs.
Snow caused serious problems during the big snow year of 1964-65 when the roof collapsed on Tompkins Hardware, Markalunas said.
He added that anything over 200 inches (in town) is considered a huge year, and there’s been plenty of those over the decades. And it appears the early 1980s were the best, with three consecutive years bringing more than 200 inches.
“I am sure it will be a 200-inch year this season,” Markalunas said .If you use the Farmer’s Almanac as a credible forecaster, then the rest of the winter should produce more than anything Aspen has ever experienced.
The long-term forecast calls for snow showers and cold temperatures, with periods of heavy snow toward the end of January. February will remain cold and snowy, and some big storms are predicted in late March.
Those who are superstitious, however, would prefer not to talk about it.
“Shhhh,” said Snowmass Village resident Bob Purvis. “Don’t talk about it. It might go away.”
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Nov. 1, 2007-Jan. 18, 2008 102.19
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Many members of the community wrote to laud the former Skico executive and city councilman for his friendship, dedication to family and community-minded spirit over more than two decades in Aspen.