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Winter interrupts March meltdown

Janet Urquhart

In typical schizophrenic spring fashion, fleece and ski pants replaced shorts and T-shirts in Aspen as winter regrouped for a weekend blast of snow and cold.

Periods of sunshine intermixed with downright blizzard conditions gave local slopes a boost – comforting news for visitors who’ve been calling to inquire about snow conditions after a March meltdown.

The Aspen Skiing Co. was reporting 14 new inches at Snowmass by Sunday morning, reflecting two days of snow. Thirteen inches helped revive the base atop Aspen Mountain and Highlands.

Seduced by last week’s balmy weather, the city’s golf course announced it would open for the weekend – the earliest anyone can remember hitting the local links – but a blanket of white scuttled thoughts of playing the front nine for $15.

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Today’s forecast, though, calls for a return to the sunny, warm weather that is likely to have bicycle rentals rivaling ski rentals as Aspen’s ski season counts down the final two weeks to its Easter Sunday closing.

“It is spring skiing, no question about it,” said David Perry, Aspen Skiing Co. senior vice president. “I’m one of those people who loves spring skiing. I like the spirit on the mountain – people aren’t trying to bag as many runs as they can. It’s a little more celebratory.”

Aspen Mountain and Snowmass will remain open until April 11, with Highlands and Buttermilk calling it quits a week earlier.

The Skico has offered to let anyone with the Highlands/Buttermilk-only pass ski for $5 a day during the last week of the season.

Some 2,000 passholders at Sunlight Mountain Resort outside Glenwood Springs have been offered the same deal, starting today, since unseasonably warm temperatures forced the mountain to close Sunday, a week early. Sunlight employees may ski or ride free at Aspen/Snowmass for the rest of the season.

The Skico is anticipating a busy final countdown to closing, with strong bookings from Mexican and South American travelers coming to Aspen for an Easter holiday. The company had planned to hold firm on its $72 lift ticket through the end of the season, but there has been discussion about dropping the price after Highlands and Buttermilk close, Perry said. That decision will be made this week.

Local hotels are reporting brisk business at least through the coming weekend, with things tapering off during the final week of the season.

Callers have been wondering about the weather, but they’re not calling off their plans.

“We’ve had a number of inquiries – asking about how the snow is holding up,” said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a local reservations agency. “It’s pretty well known that the whole western United States is in a fairly significant warm spell, but absolutely no cancellations.”

Bookings are still strong this week at the Sky Hotel, where revenues are up more than 30 percent this month, according to Jacque Hegarty, director of sales and marketing.

“People are definitely asking about [the weather], but they understand the weather patterns here. We could have two feet of snow next week,” she said. “And, if the sun’s out, they’re still having fun.”

“We’re still running strong right up until about the fifth of April,” said John Egelhoff, director of sales at the luxurious Little Nell hotel. “I passed someone on the street who said, ‘We can ski in the morning and bike in the afternoon. This is great.'”

Last week’s spate of shorts weather certainly produced brisk business at Aspen Velo, a local bike shop.

“I had a June day yesterday,” said owner Michael Wampler on Friday. “Rentals, repairs, sales … I was slam-dunked the entire day.”

But, things were a little slower than usual at the Incline ski rental shop at the base of Ajax on Friday morning.

“It would have been nice if this had held off until April,” conceded Dave Gordon as he prepped a customer’s skis for the decidedly wet conditions.

The dry March eroded the local snowpack by about 20 percent in roughly two weeks – an early, fast meltdown by any measure, according to Phil Overeynder, Aspen’s utility director and the man who will be keeping a close watch on stream levels as the spring progresses.

By Friday, the city’s water plant had measured just 0.95 inches of precipitation for the month, though the weekend weather augmented that total. The average for March is 2.36 inches, while the driest March on record produced just 0.52 inches of precipitation, Overeynder said.

March is typically the wettest month of the year, he noted.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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