The year of no snow " 1976 |

The year of no snow " 1976

The front of the Nov. 25, 1979, issue of The Aspen Times showing Aspen Skiing Company president D.R.C. Brown at the base of Little Nell and its lack of snow.

Aspen locals weren’t worried by the fact that, as of Thanksgiving 1976, there wasn’t even enough snow to bother running a chairlift.

It had happened before, after all, and for ski bums living in a ski town, it was just another rocky start to what would certainly turn into a great year ” right?

Wrong. It would take nearly two months to open terrain on Aspen Mountain, and almost three months before significant snow fell.

The 1976-77 ski season has taken on mythic proportions, in a negative sense, in Aspen skiing lore. While ultimately it did snow enough to produce what one local called “a great season,” the first two months were bad, really bad.

Business leaders reported serious losses by local shops and businesses, disco dancing replaced skiing as the main activity among the 20-something set, and Colorado’s U.S. Senator Floyd Haskell worried publicly that the state might need federal disaster aid before the season ended.

A photo on the front page of Nov. 25, 1976, edition of The Aspen Times weekly newspaper (there were no dailies at that time) said it all: “It’s just one of those years,” said Aspen Ski Corp. chief DRC Brown, standing at the base of the Little Nell slope surrounded by clumps of grass and weeds. “Won’t be the first. Won’t be the last.”

Brown recalled that in 1939 or 1940, Independence Pass was open to traffic until Jan. 20, and in 1965 or so it didn’t snow appreciably until Jan. 20, the day after the Ski Corp. brass threw a party and handed him a hat that said “Greenskeeper.”

On Nov. 24, 1976, Aspen Highlands owner Whip Jones had defiantly opened his Half-Inch Poma lift for skiing on artificial snow, with $3 lift tickets, but that was the only skiing available.

Longtime Aspen Mountain ski patroller Tim Cooney, who lived in Aspen in 1976 and tended bar at a legendary watering hole, The Pub, said that while there was some alarm among the movers and shakers in town, the local workers took it in stride.

“Oh, well. Let’s go down to The Pub and have a drink,” was the prevailing mood among the working class, Cooney said. He added that ski patrollers either were laid off or not called up for work until early January, when part of Aspen Mountain was opened for limited skiing. Skiers were still downloading on Lift 1A as of Jan. 13, according to The Aspen Times.

Cooney explained that, while the economy depended on skiing to a far greater extent than it does today, local workers had less to worry about.

“There wasn’t that much stress about employment or money,” he recalled. “Whatever job you had, you could pay your rent and get your ski pass, and a pair of skis.” Or, for those strapped for cash, the Bank of Aspen would give out short-term $300 loans for ski passes, and local ski shops would sell skis and other gear on a payment plan.

“It was still really a ski bum era,” Cooney said, who was driving the mountain ambulance in return for a free ski pass.

Snowmaking was in its infancy, and by Dec. 9 locals were banding together to conduct a “Dance for Snow” through the streets of Aspen that was credited with bringing “some snow” a couple of days later, but not much.

Several locally oriented races and Aspen Ski Club events were canceled on Aspen Mountain, but the World Pro Ski Racing Tour events, organized by longtime local Bob Beattie, were scheduled to go ahead on artificial snow. And by Dec. 16, boosters were spending time and energy promoting plans for Wintersköl, scheduled for Jan. 19-23.

Officials from the city and county put together a “Great Aspen Recovery Party” to show that a lack of snow wouldn’t dislocate Aspen’s funny bone. Local Steve Gantzel and friends constructed a 4-ton polar bear out of ice scooped up from the shavings at the Aspen Ice Arena, reportedly just before the Ski Corp. commandeered the remaining ice pile to cover the ground at a Snowmass chairlift station.

Local businesses started feeling the pinch by mid-December.

An ad for Kindersport, a store that sold cross-country equipment for children, noted “Grass may be a problem in Aspen, but a little further up the pass.”

And Rocky Mountain Outfitters advertised, “‘Til it snows, we’re having a 50 percent off sale.”

One article in The Aspen Times, quoting local lodge owner Michael Behrendt, reported losses among the local business community of up to $30,000 a day, and the Ski Corp. was claiming losses approaching $4 million by the first of the year. At the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, board members discussed sending a letter chiding Colorado’s Democratic Sen. Floyd Haskell, for saying the state might need a federal disaster declaration and financial aid if things didn’t improve. The letter apparently was not sent.

Jane Click, who owned the popular Geraniums ‘n’ Sunshine store, recalled that she had only two years as a retailer under her belt in 1976 and, when business hit the skids for lack of tourists, “I cried a lot.”

Still, she said, “It was just a case of surviving, and in those days everybody really stuck together.” One thing that helped, she recalled, is that she had just started selling a line of locally sewn articles of clothing known as the “Aspen Cape.” An ad in the New Yorker magazine, she said, “saved me” by attracting customers she might otherwise not have had.

David Fleisher, owner of Pitkin County Dry Goods, has one of the only businesses in town that has been under the same ownership since the year of no snow. In fact, he said this week, he opened in 1969 and, by 1975, “we were just figuring out how to do it, and became profitable.”

So 1976 was a jolt, but “somehow we survived it,” Fleisher said.

Although his memory is vague on the point, he said, “I’d imagine we just had to dump everything, put everything on sale before Christmas, is the only way we could survive it. Get our cash out and start all over again, and make the best of it.”

Taxicab drivers complained that there weren’t enough fares to keep them going, and one told The Aspen Times that he hadn’t been able to pay his January rent yet and it was already the middle of the month.

By mid-January, Buttermilk had three lifts open for what was said to be “poor” skiing. The Ski Corp. was talking about gearing up to vastly expand its snowmaking capacity over the coming summer. Hotel occupancy was said to be running a meager 50 percent around town, compared to 70-90 percent in a normal year, but projected occupancy for March was holding at around 90 percent, officials reported.

Refunds were offered on the local “host pass,” which cost $200 and was somewhat similar to the ACRA membership pass of today, and the city donated office space on the second floor of the Wheeler Opera House for state agencies handling job services, unemployment benefits and food stamps.

Then-Mayor Stacy Standley, in a trip to Washington, D.C., conferred with federal officials about the possibility of federal disaster assistance to hard-hit ski towns around Colorado. The bureaucrats were not helpful.

On Jan. 20, The Aspen Times reported that The Roch Cup, an Aspen tradition dating back to 1939, was being moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, in order to ensure the race could at least be held.

At the same time, local and state officials arranged for a private company to start seeding the clouds to make snow, projected to cost $250,000. The cost was to be spread among state and local governments, business organizations and community groups.

The first real snow of the year, a paltry 8 inches, fell Feb. 22, the week after film star Claudine Longet was convicted of criminally negligent homicide over the shooting death of her lover, ski racer Vladimir “Spider” Sabich.

A second snowstorm about a week later got things back on track on the slopes. According to ski instructor John Phillips, who had been in Aspen for eight years and had to warn his clients not to come that year, “It turned into a great season … it was slower [than normal] and we had the mountain to ski for ourselves.”

But business owners recalled that, financially speaking, it was too late for the season to recover completely.

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