Paul Andersen: Fair Game
Editor’s note: This column was written late last week.
It was super windy Dec. 31, when I dialed up the ski and snow report just to see if the usually ebullient voice of Skico could muster something positive. A subdued monotone reported that two lifts were open at Highlands and only one lift each at Aspen Mountain and Buttermilk, and there wasn’t even a mention of Snowmass.Who could blame the recording? Conditions were abysmal that day as high winds scoured man-made snow into a boilerplate that was the only thing between the metal edges of rental skis and Mother Earth. Snowmaking and grooming saved the holidays, but on that dreary, windswept morning, my ski libido plummeted.Snow was as scant here as “good will to men” on Wall Street or holiday cheer at GOP headquarters, leaving the Aspen winter economy to hang on a few inches of shaved ice. Locals have taken disconsolately to the couch, getting fat on Christmas cookies and finding comfort in Netflix and local dispensaries.This year’s weather patterns are morosely reminiscent of “The Year of Un.” That’s what we called it when I was living in Crested Butte during the dreadful 1976-77 ski season, a year when the economy was shaken and Utes were summoned to dance for snow.Following are accounts from Snowmass Ski Area manager Jim Snobble from that mournful year – before snowmaking – when the ski area had three different opening days:”Opened Thursday, Dec. 23, 1976: Opened today on #2 lift only after massive snow hauling with shovels, dozers, loaders, snowcats, fire trucks, etc. – had free skiing – extremely marginal – had 1,200 people and 4,700 rides on #2 – everything went well considering worst conditions in memory – altogether the most inauspicious and disastrous opening of any we’ve had – crowd totally destroyed what snow we had – will probably close tomorrow.” “Thursday, Dec. 30, 1976: 2nd opening day – still partial and limited – only #2 lift for free skiing – had about 950 skiers & conditions still terrible – now have orders from board to stay open no matter how bad conditions get, as long as anyone shows up to ski – most unbelievable winter ever – no winter, in fact.””Friday, Jan. 7, 1977: 3rd opening day – this should be for real this time – at least we are charging – conditions still extremely poor – skiing very hazardous and many obstacles – we may not even last now, although we should – but it will be tight.”Skiing sucked that year in Aspen, but you could drive a car over Independence Pass – without chains or snow tires. Aspen weather aficionado Jim Markalunas recalled driving over the pass for a Christmas visit and returning after New Year’s. A photograph of his wife, Ramona, at the summit shows only a skim of snow.Aspen had another drought year in 1981. An Aspen Times cover shows then-Skico President D.R.C. Brown standing at the bottom of a barren Little Nell, his shoulders shrugged, his hands raised in despair.”Mother Nature will fool you every time,” Markalunas likes to say in a high pitch of excitement as the weather proves him right. “Marky” loves to compare records and recount epic droughts that are followed by equally epic snowfalls, all of which he has recorded in a book on the weather charts of Aspen, which he kept diligently for decades.Erratic weather catches our attention because, historically, it’s been amazingly consistent. We have always counted on a Thanksgiving opening, usually with the first big snow at Halloween.When that doesn’t happen, we scratch our heads in wonder, as if facing for the first time uncertainty in the natural patterns we take for granted. When a drought interferes with our plans, needs, comfort, fun, safety and security, we curse, cry and moan, all with no effect. Our collective pleas might as well be shouted at the moon.Human agency in climate change is a relatively novel notion, and there is plenty of denial that it could spur dramatic changes in local weather patterns. Instead, we look at weather as a great, inscrutable mystery that gives Marky’s maxim inviolable authority: “Mother Nature will fool you every time.”As the ski shops sell out of P-tex, skiers pray for big dumps that could salvage the season. Hope springs eternal that Mother Nature will fool us again with a return to deep pillows of comforting snow and bless us with a real Colorado winter.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times.
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