Where’s the snow? Aspen can only wait
ASPEN – While holiday skiers hit the slopes in Aspen, it was short-sleeve weather downtown on Friday, and at least three runners on the Rio Grande Trail were spotted in shorts.The paucity of snow is on many a local’s mind, and one elected official suggested Aspen residents wash their cars to trigger a change in the weather pattern. Nonetheless, forecasters are calling for another week of sunny, dry conditions in Aspen to start the new year.At least some visitors, though, appeared to be taking the conditions in stride as 2011 drew to a close, basking in the sun after a day of skiing or jumping on the gondola to take yet another run.”It’s better than I thought it would be,” said a skier from Washington, D.C., coming off Aspen Mountain. “There’s no snow on the East Coast, so … ” Saturday brought high winds – gusts exceeding 100 mph at a weather station near Snowmass, according to one report – but nary a trace of snow. By Sunday, it was warm and sunny yet again.And the big dumps that everyone is jonesing for have not yet materialized. The Aspen water plant measured about 10 inches of snowfall in December, less than half the average for the month, plus about three-quarters of an inch of rain.The weather makes it tougher to sell ski gear, one Aspen retailer said in the days before Christmas, and those who depend on shoveling snow for their winter income have slept in more often than not so far.On the other hand, downtown Aspen was bustling with shoppers as the holiday week drew to a close. Sales tax revenues may be up, while spending on snow removal and sand is down. Last year, the city spent $26,570 to haul snow out of the downtown core and sand the streets in November and December. This year, it has spent about half that sum, according to Jerry Nye, superintendent of the streets department.”We haven’t spent much of the snowplow budget,” he said.The Aspen-Snowmass nordic budget is likely underspent, as well, since much of the cross-country trail system is nonexistent. Grass protrudes where skiers would be hitting sublimely groomed tracks in a more typical winter.The Nordic Hotline touts a groomed loop near Aspen High School as the best option. “The Aspen golf course is really getting hammered by this warm weather. You’ll probably be able to piece together a loop up there, but not a whole lot right now,” the hotline advised on Saturday.A spokesman at an Aspen ski shop reported booming business in ski rentals last week but also plenty of gouges on returned skis – a reflection of conditions. The ski-tuning business was up dramatically, he added.In the backcountry, the good news is the avalanche danger is low to moderate, though there were newly wind-loaded slabs on some aspects after Saturday’s gusts. Finding a place to make some safe turns has been challenging.Local backcountry enthusiast David Swersky said he and friends skied off Richmond Ridge to the Roaring Fork side recently. He described conditions as “top-to-bottom sugar” without any packed base to cover obstacles.”You had to be extremely lucky to not hit something underneath,” he said.Conditions are ripe for some serious avalanche activity once it does snow, added Swersky, a member of Mountain Rescue Aspen, which hosts its annual avalanche awareness workshop on Jan. 20-21.”We are setting ourselves up for the classic Colorado avalanche cycle – only more so,” he said. “Anything that loads on what’s now there will become a major problem.”But when that will happen is difficult to say.
Central Colorado is suffering a La Nia weather pattern that has sent storms north, south or both, according to Chris Cuoco, senior meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. Weather systems have tracked south over Arizona and New Mexico or stayed north and then slipped down the Front Range and dumped in Denver and the Central Plains.”Right now, it doesn’t look like anything’s going to happen until next Saturday (Jan. 7) at the earliest,” Cuoco said.The local weather bloggers at aspenweather.net offered this on Saturday: “After next weekend the pattern has a distinct look of change as things totally realign themselves out in the Pacific Ocean. This could be the pivotal make or break point of our winter, depending on how things turn out in about 10 days or so.” Anyone who was around last winter knows things can turn around quickly. An unspectacular January last season was all but forgotten in Aspen and Snowmass when 3 feet of snow fell during a week of February – most of it over a three-day period. The spring weather left a snowpack that lingered well into summer.At present, though, the snowpack in the Roaring Fork River basin stands at 55 percent of average, and at about 47 percent of average on Independence Pass, southeast of Aspen. The snowpack is at 62 percent of average on McClure Pass, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.In southwest Colorado, the snowpack is at 65 percent of average or more, and it’s reflected at the ski areas. Tiny Silverton Mountain boasts some of the best conditions in the state, reporting a base of 40 to 60 inches. Virtually all of its 1,500 acres is open. Wolf Creek reported a 53- to 58-inch base with all of its 1,600 acres open. Durango was 95 percent open; Telluride reported 61 percent of its terrain open on Saturday.By comparison, Aspen Mountain reported an 18-inch base at midmountain Sunday and 32 inches on top, with about 81 percent of its terrain available, but only about half of its expert runs open.Vail reported an 18-inch base on Sunday, with just 29 percent of its 1,521 acres open.At Canyons in Utah, 10 of 19 lifts were operating with 41 of 182 trails open on Saturday. At Snowbasin Resort, about 50 miles north, the base was 41 inches.Northern Nevada’s Tahoe Basin and the Sierra also are suffering this season with snowpack at only about 10 percent of normal. Officials said if weather patterns continued through Saturday, it would be the first time since 1883 that nearby Reno didn’t have any precipitation for the entire month of December.Farther south in New Mexico, a steady stream of December storms has given resorts some of the best early conditions in the country. Most resorts there recently reported a 40-plus-inch base.Even Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort on Mount Charleston, about 30 miles northwest of Las Vegas, had a 40-inch base last week – deeper than most Utah resorts.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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