Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

If you haven’t noticed, and who hasn’t, we’re a bit shy on snow this winter. You can cry all you want about the reasons, but generally speaking, the skiing is pretty good. Sure, it’s hard on equipment (and bodies), but if you factor out the “spoiled” expectations that tend to grip our sorry asses from time to time, it ain’t all that bad.

Every once in a while, Mother Nature reminds us that even with the best of technology (snowmaking) we are still at her mercy. We can dance, seed the clouds, pray, cuss, capitulate, or do back flips, but it’s not going to snow until it’s ready.

Gondola talk brings up vague references to the “big” drought, 1976-77, even though most of those doing the talking were somewhere else or still learning to walk at the time. In December 1976 you couldn’t buy a snowstorm, not even if you were DRC Brown and were the president of the Aspen Ski Corp. Darcy, as he was affectionately called, was known for always getting a good dump of snow for the Christmas holidays, but that particular year, he had somehow missed the mark.

That’s the winter the Aspen Mountain lifts didn’t fire up until Jan. 10, immediately following a welcome storm of 8 inches. January saw one other 5-inch tempest before the month was over.

From Nov. 1 through Dec. 31 of 1976, 15 inches of snow fell in Aspen. In 2011, during the same months, we had almost 28 inches of snow. Add in snowmaking and this year is a glut, comparatively speaking.

Aspen Mountain ski patrol assignments seem like nightmares in retrospection. We were given details each morning such as picking rocks or shoveling snow out of snowcats onto terrain around areas such as “Grand Junction” and the top (or bottom) of Nell. It was difficult to mark obstacles as the bamboo wouldn’t stick in such thin snow cover. Ice chips from the Ice Garden were a coveted commodity and an armed guard was posted there at night to keep away competitors, such as the Highlands. I took a brand-new pair of Spalding something-or-other test skis into Bingo on an avalanche detail (what could we have been thinking?), only to throw them in the trash dumpster at the bottom once we arrived.

My buddy Buck Deane decided to take a winter horseback ride, leaving from Snowmass Falls Ranch at dusk on the 30th of December, 1976. About a third of the way to Snowmass Lake, he made camp, brewed a hot cup of tea and dined on a slab of cheese he’d brought for nourishment.

The next day, he reached the lake, then cut up to the top of Buckskin Pass, elevation 12,462. His powerful horse Paint jumped off the cornice at the top, pulling Beaver the pack horse down with them, and the commitment had been made. There was no turning back, and with Paint breaking trail, sometimes through drifts up around his neck, they made it to Maroon Lake in the late afternoon. It was after 8 p.m. when the trio finally reached the T Lazy 7, and Buck and I headed to town for a little New Year’s celebration.

Years like that aren’t very good for the summer either, as there is very little run-off from the high country, the wildflowers don’t bloom as profusely, and life in the valley and the wilderness is compromised. During the winter of 1977-78, the Vagneur ranch was forced to buy more than 100 tons of hay to supplement its own normally sufficient hay crop, due to the dry, preceding summer.

We don’t know what the rest of this winter will bring, but given our optimism for things to work out, we assume it’s eventually going to be OK. In the meantime, we can only enjoy each day for what it is and hope for a big snowstorm to break the impasse.

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