We’re due, right? Looking back at snow totals, Aspen is about ready for a big winter
November 22, 2018
If you lived in Aspen in the early 1980s, congratulations — you lived through arguably the greatest spate of epic powder in recent memory.
The four winters from January 1981 to June 1985 each totaled more than 200 inches of snow on the valley floor — it's dizzying to consider the totals atop Aspen Mountain — and all four appear in Aspen's Top 10 Most Epic Snow Years since 1980, according to statistics.
In fact, since 1980, the winter of 1983-84 is the granddaddy of them all, when 276 inches of snow fell in Aspen.
"A lot of (the past winters) run together after all these years," said Roger Marolt, an Aspen native and member of a venerable local skiing family. "But that one stands out and continues to stand out."
It was Marolt's senior year of college, but he came home to Aspen for winter break, which lasted about four weeks.
"I'm pretty sure it snowed every day of the Christmas break," he said. "We skied every day and we never skied hard snow.
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"The tourists were complaining because they couldn't see and the snow was so deep. People were not skiing because the snow was so deep. We never saw the sun. It was just nuts."
The winter of 1983-84 began with a whooping 52 inches of powder in November 1983, followed by an unbelievable 71 inches in December. Both are monthly records since 1980. January and February 1984 backed off a bit, but March came back in full force with another 52 inches.
Beth Albert, an Aspen Times advertising representative who moved to town in September 1983 after graduating college, remembered wondering what she'd gotten herself into.
"I've never seen another winter like that — and I'm from upstate New York," Albert said. "The concrete gray ski would just spit out snow everyday. I don't remember it not snowing a single day that winter.
"Just getting back and forth to the bus stop was an adventure. All the drifts on both sides of the street were taller than me. It was like walking through a tunnel."
The '83-'84 season's 276 inches blasted Aspen's average yearly snowfall of 164 inches (since 1980) into the stratosphere. In fact, statistics show it barely stopped snowing in Aspen in 1984, when 15.5 inches fell in June and 2.5 inches two months later in September.
Marolt said he remembers the June snowfall because the ground in the hills around Aspen became so saturated, aspen trees began falling over because the roots were so water-logged.
"I remember the aspen trees on Red Mountain looked like Tinker Toys lying on top of each other," he said. "The ground just couldn't hold them. It was something else."
After the Colorado Department of Transportation finally opened Independence Pass sometime in June 1984, Marolt said he and his friends drove up to the top and found a 20-foot-high cornice atop Mountain Boy.
"We jumped off it," he said. "It was huge. That was amazing."
A snow reporting station located in the Castle Creek Valley between Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands, which has operated on a consistent, monthly basis since the winter of 1980-81, is the source of the above information. The data it collects are stored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and is accessible online.
The NOAA data is reported in calendar years and must be broken down into winters to be beneficial for Roaring Fork Valley powder hounds. But once that's done, an interesting picture of the past 38 winters emerges.
Keeping that picture in mind, it's clear that the early-'80s powder fiends in their rainbow onesies had a damned good run during those nearly four decades of winter, a string of Aspen winters in the '90s and again in the late-Oughts also provide compelling arguments for most epic ever.
In fact, the 90s argument might be the best because it lasted the longest.
The six winters between January 1992 and May 1998 all brought solid, and sometimes epic, snowfall totals to Aspen, including three winters that topped the 200-inch mark, including the winter of 1992-93, which dropped 208 inches, including 52 inches in November and another 50 in February, and the winter of 1994-95 with 214 inches.
Rob Fabrocini, a sergeant with the Aspen Police Department who moved to town in 1991, remembered those years fondly.
"When I first moved here, I remember those big bluebird snow days after it would snow all night long," he said. "They were those magazine snow days — epic days you'll never forget.
"Everyone in town would be walking around with raccoon eyes. You'd be smiling for days."
The biggie in those years was the winter of 1996-97, when 235.2 inches fell, according to the Castle Creek reporting station. The mouthwatering monthly snowfall totals that season are worth noting: Oct.: 27.7, Nov.: 37.3, Dec.: 43.6, Jan.: 44.8, Feb.: 23.7, March: 22.9, April: 28.9. It snowed a bit in September and May, too.
Fabrocini said he remembers one particularly big storm in February 1997 when he was skiing with his brother and the wind was whipping up Spar Gulch so hard and the snow was so deep they had to push with their poles just to move downhill.
"That storm really sticks out in my head," he said. "You couldn't see a foot in front of you. It was snowing so hard, within minutes your tracks would be covered."
That year the snow was so deep, just moving around was difficult, Fabrocini said.
"I clearly remember that just getting out of your house was difficult," he said. "Even getting to the bus stop to get to town you almost had to put skis on."
Some of those 1990s numbers have been adjusted because of a few monthly reporting gaps by the Castle Creek station. The Aspen Times used the same NOAA tools to access a Crested Butte snow reporting station to plug in numbers from that area 18 miles south of Aspen to try to balance Aspen's end winter totals. And while the Crested Butte station averages about 25 inches more a year of snow than the Castle Creek reporting station, its data provides a clearer picture of the winters than blank monthly totals.
While the six winters in the '90s were assuredly something special, four winters starting about a decade ago also make a good case for greatest spate of epic winters in recent memory.
It all started with the winter of 2007-08, which knocked the town upside the head after nine years — nine years! — of mediocre winters at best. That season clocks in with 250 inches and the second-biggest winter in Aspen since 1980-81.
"I just remember feeling sore every day," said G.R. Fielding, engineer for Pitkin County who moved to Aspen from Boulder in December 2006. "It was soft on soft on soft continually. It was a long time before we had a not-great day."
Still, the season began with a whimper.
"We had a really mild fall," said Fielding, an avid skier who averages 50 to 80 days a season. "There was no snow on the ground. If memory serves, the opening day at Snowmass was just a little white ribbon from mid-mountain all the way down."
Statistics from the Castle Creek reporting station back up Fielding's memories. Just 14 inches of snow fell in October 2007, followed by an anemic 7 inches in November, according to the monthly totals.
"It started to snow around Thanksgiving of 2007, and then it didn't stop," he said. "We got a couple glimpses of the sun in December and a couple of glimpses of sun in January. Like 40 out of 60 days we got decent snow."
Again, the snow totals track with Fielding's memories. December hit with a monstrous 62.8 inches, with monthly snowfall totals that followed that read like ski porn: Jan.: 51 inches, Feb.: 39.1, March: 39.4, April: 23.6.
Fielding said he remembers opening day at Aspen Highlands that season in particular.
"It was like 42 inches in 48 hours or something ridiculous like that," he said. "Just the depth of the snow … stands out in my mind."
In fact, old-time Aspenite Fielding preferred the snowfall in 2007-08 to the winter of 1983-84 because it was more consistently epic, he said.
"That's the thing — that year because it was snowing so much, even 4-to-5-inch days ended up being great," said Fielding, noting that ski patrol would often open closed terrain on those days. "The whole year was great. There were no droughts. Everything stayed soft for a long time."
Marolt also recalled the winter of 2007-08.
"I remember shoveling my driveway in the morning and coming home and having to do it again," he said. "The piles got so high that I developed rotator cuff problems because I had to throw (the snow) up so high."
But then came 2008-09, when more than 100 inches fell in December and January and more than 200 that season. The winter of 2009-10 was a bit above average with 172.8 inches, but 2010-11 saw a total of 219.6 inches, including a monstrous 54.4 inches in April.
Those four-to-six-year periods are undoubtedly fun to remember and fantasize about, but it's also instructive to look at the interim years. According to the Castle Creek reporting station statistics, the seven-to-nine-year periods between the kind winters appear to follow a bit of a trend, as well.
They tend to include a few below-average years, one or two above average-years, one pretty good year and at least one real stinker.
For example, the winter of 1980-81 — before the four early '80s winters filled with powdery goodness — was the absolute worst of the last 38 winters. Just 102.9 inches fell in Aspen that year.
The seven winters between October 1985 and May 1992 had two good ones (1988-89 with 181 inches and 1990-91 with 193 inches). The rest were 150 inches or below, with 1989-90 stinking up the joint with 119.1 total inches.
The nine winters from October 1998 to May 2007 were the very definition of drudgery. Six were all around 150 inches, while 2001-02 (126.6 inches) and 1999-2000 (a paltry 112.3 inches) must have led to a lot of well-exercised Aspen dogs. The best was 1998-99, with 164.9 inches just hitting the area's average.
Which brings us to the past seven Aspen winters.
Since October 2011, Aspen has seen one pretty good year — 2013-14 with 199.8 inches — one good year, three below- or just at-average years and two we'd likely rather forget – including 2011-12 with 111.6 inches and last season's uninspiring 127.1 inches.
To repeat: Right before the big '80s snowfall years began, a low snow year (1980-81). The winter of 1991-92 before the 90s spate of powder? Another low snow year (134 inches). The late-Oughts run of powder, however, began after an average winter (2006-07 with 156.7 inches).
And, now, perhaps, you're wondering about the winter of 2018-19.
Certainly we're due. That's not a prediction, mind you. It's merely an observation gleaned from hours of looking at NOAA statistics covering the Aspen area.
There's also last year's crappy snow year, which capped seven more or less mediocre winters. Does the early snowfall this season signal a monster 2018-19 winter?
Both the Climate Prediction Center — another agency in the NOAA bureaucracy — and the Old Farmer's Almanac predicted a mostly warmer-than-average winter in the United States. However, both also say there's a good chance of a weak El Nino system that could bring wetter-than-average conditions to the Southwestern U.S.
The Climate Prediction Center said El Nino has a 70 to 75 percent chance of developing in late fall to early winter, according to an October news release.
A NOAA map showing the predicted southwest precipitation has Aspen on the northern edge of wetter-than-normal prediction bubble, as does an Old Farmer's Almanac map.
And while it sounds a bit like the reverse of last year's annoying situation, where Aspen sat on the southern edge of the northern La Nina precipitation bubble hoping for snow crumbs, the early signs are good.
Because, after all, we're due.
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