The drought of 1976-77 | AspenTimes.com

The drought of 1976-77

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen CO Colorado

Aspen Times file/Aspen Historical Society

ASPEN – If you ride up the Silver Queen Gondola on Aspen Mountain with any seasoned residents from the Roaring Fork Valley, chances are the talk will turn to the drought in the winter of 1976-77.The comments will either be along the lines of, “This is nothing. You should have seen conditions in ’76-77,” or “Jeez, it’s almost as bad now as it was back then.”We figured at The Aspen Times that many of the assessments were dubious. Some of the people doing the talking weren’t there, and those who were around haven’t been having enough fun over the past 35 years if they remember details from that long-ago winter. So we blew the dust off bound volumes of The Aspen Times Weekly at the Aspen Historical Society to get a feel for that tough winter.

An article in the Thanksgiving Day edition of the Times in 1976 provided a bleak forecast for the start of the season. The Aspen Skiing Corp. would lose $400,000 in gross revenues if it could not open Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, Snowmass and Breckenridge – which it owned back then – over Thanksgiving weekend, an article said.The Ski Corp., as today’s Aspen Skiing Co. was known back then, had only missed a Thanksgiving Day opening on “six or seven” years since it started operating on Jan. 1, 1946. Company President D.R.C. Brown was philosophical about conditions.”It won’t be the first, and it won’t be the last,” he said of the prospect of not firing up the chairlifts for Thanksgiving. There was only a 10-inch base at the top of Aspen Mountain, and snowmaking didn’t exist to any degree.Aspen Highlands was determined to open for Thanksgiving, the article said, although it would only start a Poma lift and charge $3.

The Times reported on Dec. 2 that the Ski Corp. was tentatively planning on opening Aspen Mountain and Buttermilk on Dec. 11 and Snowmass as soon as possible. It appeared more wishful thinking than anything. Snow just wasn’t falling.The article quoted Ski Corp. General Manager Tom Richardson as saying it was only the third time in 15 years that Aspen Mountain wasn’t able to open for Thanksgiving. The previous years were 1962, when the lifts finally rolled on Dec. 2; 1966, when the opening was pushed back to Dec. 4; and 1972, when poor conditions delayed the opening until Dec. 16.

An article in the Dec. 9 edition of the Aspen Times Weekly had pictures and an interview with Martha Madsen Washington, who was an official watcher of Aspen weather for the U.S. Weather Bureau. She recorded just 7.9 inches of snowfall in November.Research by current Aspen Times columnist Tony Vagneur showed that from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, 1976, only 15 inches of snow fell in Aspen. “In 2011, during the same months, we had almost 28 inches of snow. Add in snowmaking, and this year is a glut, comparatively speaking,” Vagneur wrote in his Jan. 7 column.Conditions were so dry in December 1976 that town residents were holding snow dances to appease the gods. A story on Dec. 9, 1976, said one recent dance was led by a fire-breathing clown. A parade of snow dancers marched down Mill Street to the Hyman Avenue Mall and then doubled back to the Hotel Jerome bar, “where the evening atmosphere was immediately and increasingly altered,” the article said.

The snow dances did no good. A Times article on Dec. 16, 1976, outlined the financial impact of the drought on the Ski Corp.”The 1976 year of no snow has already caused about a $1 million loss of revenue to the Aspen Skiing Corp.,” the article said. The loss was estimated from lift-ticket sales and ski-school revenues the previous season over the same period.The drought also caused record unemployment in modern Aspen. Ski Corp. officials said they would normally have 900 workers on payroll by mid-December. There were only 100 in 1976.

A full-page ad in the same edition called for “3,496,821,752 snowflakes” – a number that sounds suspiciously low.Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, former editor and longtime writer for the Times, reported in the same edition on the financial hardship faced by Aspen’s working class. Free soup was being given in the mall. Parents were sending airplane tickets to their ski-bum kids so they could come home. Hot dogs were selling like “hot cakes,” Hayes reported.Desperate times were calling for desperate measures. An editorial by former Aspen Times owner Bil Dunaway urged the city of Aspen to pledge to provide free water for snowmaking in future years to coax the Ski Corp. into making a big investment.

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An article in the Dec. 30 edition said Snowmass was trying to open with Lift 2. However, it had tried to fire up the lift the week before, but conditions were too poor.Current Aspen Times columnist Paul Andersen researched accounts of the drought year by former Snowmass Ski Area manager Jim Snobble. In his Jan. 9 column, Andersen cited the following journal entry by Snobble:”Thursday, Dec. 30, 1976: 2nd opening day – still partial and limited – only #2 lift for free skiing – had about 950 skiers & conditions still terrible – now have orders from board to stay open no matter how bad conditions get, as long as anyone shows up to ski – most unbelievable winter ever – no winter, in fact.”Conditions didn’t allow Snowmass to stay open. It wasn’t until Jan. 7 that Lift 2 fired up for good that season.The Aspen Times Weekly reported on Jan. 13, 1977, that Aspen Mountain finally opened Jan. 11 with all chairlifts except Little Nell and Bell Mountain.Lifts 1, 2 and 3 opened at Buttermilk Jan. 1 “although skiing is rated poor,” the Times reported Jan. 6.

As the winter wore on, conditions improved a bit. A front-page headline on Feb. 24 read, “Nature springs a surprise … winter!” along with a snowy scenic shot. A story inside said 20 inches of snow fell in Aspen in January.The Ski Corp. held a news conference to announce it would install snowmaking at Buttermilk the following summer. Why Buttermilk? The company reasoned it could install a system at Buttermilk that would cover 70 acres and accommodate 1,500 skiers. A system feasible at Aspen Mountain would cover only 37 acres and host 400 to 500 skiers. Snowmaking wasn’t an option at Snowmass due to lack of water, the article said.Even with a bit more snow, Aspen governments and businesses contributed $20,000 for cloud-seeding efforts during the last half of the winter, according to the April 7, 1977, edition. It was unknown if the weather-modification effort produced any results. The snowpack in the Colorado mountains ranged from 60 to 67 percent of average.The Times reported that the Ski Corp. had estimated it would attract about 70 percent of its typical business from mid-February through March. And with that, ski season ended with a whimper.scondon@aspentimes.com