Latest storm produced 20% of Aspen’s snowpack
Storms like the one that hit last weekend only roll around once in about every four years.
The storm that dumped 37 inches of snow on the slopes of Aspen’s ski areas Jan. 30 into Tuesday was the 10th largest storm cycle in 37 years, according to Aspen Skiing Co.’s records. Skico Vice President of Operations Rich Burkley said the last big storm cycle was in February 2014.
The storm did wonders for Aspen’s snowpack. It was at 100 percent of normal going into the weekend at an automated measuring station near the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. It now stands at 115 percent of average.
In a recent posting on the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website, Aspen zone forecaster Blase Reardon noted that 20 percent of the snowpack that has accumulated so far this season fell during the most recent storm. The avalanche danger spiked with one-fifth of the snowpack accumulating in just 72 hours.
Closer to Aspen, the storm on the last day of January boosted total snowfall for the month to well above average, according to weather observer Laura Taylor at the Aspen Water Treatment Plant. She reported that 11 inches of snow fell Sunday. For the month, the water plant received nearly 35 inches of snow. The average is 26 inches. Only 5.26 inches of snow fell in January 2015, according to the Water Department’s records.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service reported that every major river basin in the Colorado mountains is running well ahead of last year’s snowpack levels. The Colorado River Basin, which includes the Roaring Fork drainage, is 116 percent of last year’s snowpack as of Monday. River basins in southwestern Colorado are 185 percent of last year’s snowpack.
Skico made special preparations to get the steepest slopes open as soon as possible during the deluge. Burkley said ski patrol snow-safety crews reported to duty at 6:30 a.m. at Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands and 6 a.m. at Snowmass. That required some lift operators and maintenance workers to report early, as well.
“Aspen Mountain is the biggest challenge from a time perspective since the mountain can’t open until control is done,” Burkley said in an email.
Aspen Highlands’ ski patrol can undertake control work on the front side of the ski area, get that terrain open and then work into Highland Bowl. A similar scenario plays out at Snowmass, he said.
The gated terrain at Aspen Mountain opened each of the three days during the storm cycle — Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Burkley said Skico alters its usual operations to help speed control work during big storms. Normally, the Silver Queen Gondola cabins are pulled off the cable at the upper terminal to minimize the grips icing up. During big storms, seven cabins are staged at the bottom so patrol doesn’t have to wait for cabins to arrive from the summit in the morning.
“This saves around half an hour since patrol doesn’t have to wait for cabins to come from the summit,” Burkley wrote. Materials also are staged at the base during big storms. Patrol teams, routes and target spots are prearranged the night before. Some patrol teams will “ski cut” specific areas while others use explosive charges on specific routes, he said.
At Aspen Highlands, the Highland Bowl opened between 10:30 and 11:15 a.m. each day during the storm.
The vast terrain in Snowmass’ Hanging Valley opened each day. The Cirque wasn’t always open because of a combination of poor visibility, high winds and ongoing control.
“We have a vested interest in getting the terrain open,” Burkley said. “Skiing compaction is our best (and most fun) control program.”
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