Tony Vagneur: Easy come, easy snow
December 22, 2017
It was December 1964, the streets were bare, no snow in the yards, and what little skiing there was sucked. Temperatures were hitting the 50s, dust was thick on parked cars and rooftops. People were peeing all over themselves, especially those in the tourist business, worried sick that Christmas week was going to be a major bust.
Nope, this was not a nightmare based on the lack of snowfall this year — it was a true-life scenario in 1964.
Then, about the 23rd, it started to rain, oh, how it rained. The gutters ran full, the storm sewers were overflowing and newcomers started worrying about flooding. Anybody with any sense knew we were going to get stomped on with a huge snowstorm, and we did. Some of the biggest snowflakes (leave politics out of this) ever recorded fell on Aspen that night.
It was beautiful. I got drunk and crashed my mother's brand-new Pontiac convertible into a huge pile of snow created by the plows, totally sticking it and left it there, standing upright at a 50-degree angle. Slick was an understatement. It was still there in the morning when I went to get it, keys in the ignition. Puppy Smith helped me get it off the humongous heap and back onto the street with some city equipment where, upon examination, nothing on my car had been damaged. Now where'd I leave my skis?
Christmas is about a lot of things, and that's one of the memorable ones. It could happen again this year, but it looks increasingly impossible, although maybe in time for New Year's, with a little luck.
On March 1, 1934, my grandfather and a couple of his kids, my father included, drove to the top of Independence Pass — I have the obligatory photo of them at the top next to the sign in my collection. You can see bare spots in the landscape behind them. The pass was open for the majority of that winter (1933-34), there being very little snow. Dust was the main challenge on the unpaved Aspen side.
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The collective local memory goes back to the winter of 1976-77, the year Aspen Mountain didn't open until sometime in January. That still stands out in some people's minds as the biggest tragedy to face our little burg in modern times, and maybe it was. Not only did the lack of snow put a damper on the ski season and put some people permanently out of business, it also hurt the ranchers and the high country wildflowers. It never did snow much that winter and lack of ground moisture and snowmelt severely curtailed the hay crop. Many voles and ground squirrels froze to death due to the shortage of insulating snow cover.
1976-77 was the winter Buck Deane and I had more fun than we should have. There was just enough snow at the T Lazy 7 to conduct lunchtime sleigh rides. Buck cooked, sang and yodeled and I hustled people back and forth with the horse-drawn sleigh. KSNO gave us free advertising as our gig was viewed as a "public service," since there was very little else to do. It also was the winter Buck dragged the "death sled," a gift from Stein Eriksen out of storage and with some excitement, we put it together.
Over the next few days, that two-man contraption led to some daring (possibly harrowing) adventures which eventually ended with an ambulance trip to the hospital for at least one unlucky fellow as the whole thing literally exploded on a crazy trip down the "Half-Inch" ski run above the Highlands A-frames with about 12 people on board. At the time, the Half-Inch, a beginner's area with a Poma, was the only operating ski lift in the Aspen area. People sitting at the bar were enticed to join us as they watched through the large picture windows.
At this point, it might be good to remember that on opening day 2010, almost all of Aspen Mountain was open. My buddy Bob and I were making laps down Summit and the Face of Bell, skiing in deep, light powder. Let's not forget 1983-84, when we got a record-breaking 278 inches, 127 of it by Jan. 1. Years like that are bound to repeat, we just don't know when.
Yeah, it's been a little dry, but we got a good bump Thursday night. Perhaps that's a harbinger of things to come. Maybe not. We should remember the first law of weather in the mountains: Get up in the morning and make the best of what you got.
We're spoiled and we know it, but we don't get trapped into whining because we know it'll all be a memorable story before we know it.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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