Willoughby: Going waist-deep in snow statistics | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Going waist-deep in snow statistics

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Deep snow year at the Midnight Mine in Queens Gulch in the 1940s.
Willoughby collection

The ski industry has evolved to produce multi-resort ski passes and direct air flights to major ski resorts from many cities. If you live in Los Angeles, the drive to Mammoth Lakes takes about the same amount of time as flying to Aspen or Utah. Having a ski pass to several resorts, at midweek, you might check the weather report to see where you want to spend a weekend. Depending on which month it is, or if you are looking for powder, you might also check the snow report.

Aspen is proud of the quality of its snow — that light, dry, fluffy kind. The number of inches of annual snow from different resorts are not as relevant. Aspen figures show average summit inches something like this: November — 21; December — 38; January — 53; February — 66. The average snowfall for the year is 179 inches with a high year in 1983-84 of 276 inches.

This is an exceptional year for Mammoth Mountain. In early February, it had a base depth ranging from 155 inches at its base to 233 at the summit. The season’s total at that time, 385 inches, is more impressive when you realize that is over 30 feet, the equivalent of a three-story building. The highest yearly snowfall amount for Mammoth, 668 inches.

Skiers and residents who have skied or lived in both locations, however, know that snow-depth figures only tell part of the story. Mammoth, when the snow is gone, is what you would expect of an igneous volcanic mountain: It is mostly rock on top of rock with giant boulders. Many runs are unskiable unless there have been feet, not inches, of snow to cover them.

Aspen Mountain, by contrast, has generally smooth surfaces beneath its snow. Even in low snow Novembers it can, with some snow-making, have skiing top to bottom. But it wasn’t always that way.

If you hiked the slopes in the summer six decades ago, you would mostly walk on a rocky surface. 

The Highland Bavarian partners first choice for their ski slopes was Little Annie Basin because it looked like the European ski areas they knew. They were looking at it in the summer when there are acres of green plants and wildflowers blooming. European slopes then, just as today, were green slopes supporting sheep, goats, and cattle.

The ski company, long before snowmaking, had to contend with low-snow early seasons. To get the slopes to be like those in Europe, they didn’t turn them into grazing areas; but every summer, trail crews worked on the trouble areas. They bulldozed areas like Spar Gulch where the drainage left a sharp V-shaped gulch bottom full of rocks.

Then they dispersed seeds and covered acres with hay. The hay helped in the early winter covering the rocks, but it was also to help vegetation growth. Like on those sheep slopes across the ocean, it was like putting compost on your garden. Year after year of vegetation growing and decaying over what had been rocks, a half century of soil development. Aspen Mountain bears no resemblance to what it was like a half-century ago.

Before there were lifts, my father’s favorite ski slopes were former mining dumps. Little grows on them as most are composed of limestone. There were no trees in the way, and they were steeper than the surrounding slope areas, so he could, in unskied snow, go faster. Many dumps were bulldozed, especially in Tourtolotte Park. There were mine shafts in many areas. The ski company used many of the trees they cut to widen runs to cover them, so no one would ski into them. Over time, the shafts collapsed, and so the remaining pits could be filled by pushing material into them instead of covering them with trees.

Today, many skiers are fond of very steep, old mine dump areas on the west side of Spar Gulch that look almost the same today as they did when skiing began. They became runs simply because those were areas where few trees grew.

When summer arrives, hike up the mountain but not on the roads. Venture up your favorite runs, thinking about how time and hours of labor have produced a mountain that doesn’t need 200 inches of snow to be totally skiable.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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