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S’No time to wait for snow

S'No Hurry

The Steamboat Ski Area opened with a mix of both natural and machine-made snow in 2016, but it's the latter that has changed the ski resort industry forever by elevating expectations of a Thanksgiving opening day.
Tom Ross

Serenity in Big Meadow

Loris Werner remembers having the mountain to himself

“I can’t recall the year," Loris Werner said. “It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving (and the ski area had yet to open), but Ski Patrol was getting things going on the upper mountain, and I went up there. And it was just brutally cold, but we had good snow. I dropped into Priest Creek and skied Three O’Clock from top to bottom, never touching a thing.

"Joe Foreman was leading Ski Patrol (getting ready to open more terrain) and I radioed him and told him he owed it to himself and the crew to go over and ski it. But I went back up and out over into Big Meadow. The snow crystals were so bright, even with my goggles on, that I was squinting.

"It was the most beautiful, serene thing, because I was the only one there and the skiing was just out of sight clear to the bottom.”

Bottomless on 3 O'clock

Nancy Gray remembers a November when the snow was too deep to ski

"It was the Monday after Thanksgiving 1984, and when we listened to the morning ski report, it said 24 inches had fallen overnight. Everybody looked out the window, and there was nothing, so nobody believed it. But they didn’t want to not believe it, and you could feel the whole town moving toward the mountain.

"I remember standing at the top of Three O’Clock pointing my skis straight down and not going down. It was so deep, it was like chest deep, and I had to follow taller people to go down. Once you got going, you had to wave your arms to pull yourself up. It was the craziest thing."

— Powder snow, Colorado’s original recreational drug, can be maddeningly fickle. And it’s particularly so in late November and early December when our craving for is at its peak.

The Storm Peak Express chairlift opened Dec. 3 1992, with dignitaries in attendance. Kimihito Kamori (left) from the ski area’s Japanese ownership group, Kamori Kanko International Limited, Billy Kidd, Alfred Fruehwirth of the Doppelmayr lift company, Ken Kowynia of the U.S. Forest Service and Kamori’s representative in Steamboat, Masanaori Senno , were on the first chair to the top.file photo

In late autumn, residents of the Yampa Valley played it cool while they waited for ski season. S’no hurry right?

They basked in the mild sunshine and carried on with their bicycling and trout fishing. But there was an edgy undertone in Ski Town USA. When will it snow?

Now they have their answer. The snowstorm that blustered into Steamboat Springs Nov. 28 was a classic example of how the snow situation can look bleaker than week-old stuffing on Turkey Day, then morph into winter wonderland three days later. Best of all, there were frigid periods during the storm when conditions were also ideal for machine-made snow.

It wasn’t always like this

The reality is that an expectation of top-to-bottom skiing, or even riding the gondola on the opening Wednesday before Thanksgiving, is a product of the last 35 years. It wasn’t until Steamboat Ski Area installed its first snowmaking system in fall 1981 that the good people of Ski Town USA ever expected to work off their turkey dinners on the slopes.

Serenity in Big Meadow

Loris Werner remembers having the mountain to himself

“I can’t recall the year,” Loris Werner said. “It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving (and the ski area had yet to open), but Ski Patrol was getting things going on the upper mountain, and I went up there. And it was just brutally cold, but we had good snow. I dropped into Priest Creek and skied Three O’Clock from top to bottom, never touching a thing.

“Joe Foreman was leading Ski Patrol (getting ready to open more terrain) and I radioed him and told him he owed it to himself and the crew to go over and ski it. But I went back up and out over into Big Meadow. The snow crystals were so bright, even with my goggles on, that I was squinting.

“It was the most beautiful, serene thing, because I was the only one there and the skiing was just out of sight clear to the bottom.”

Just ask Steamboat native Nancy Gray, now preparing for her 44th season as an instructor with the ski school here.

“I always thought we got nervous if it was after the 15th of December and we hadn’t opened,” Gray recalled. “But we weren’t too nervous if it wasn’t until Christmas.”

Another Steamboat native, Loris Werner, who wore many hats at Steamboat besides the black cowboy hat that topped his trademark yellow one-piece powder suit, put it succinctly.

“It’s all in Mother Nature’s hands,” he said. “We worry about things we can control.”

Werner was Steamboat’s ski school director, then mountain manager and finally vice president of operations.

Pete Wither, the grandson of Steamboat pioneers and former longtime Ski Patrol director, pointed out that it wasn’t until 1961 that Storm Mountain (now the Steamboat Ski Area) opened anyway.

“Back in the ’50s, it (sometimes) didn’t snow at all until the day before Christmas,” he said. “One year, we got 2 feet on Christmas Eve and were skiing Howelsen Hill on Christmas Day.”

So, how did the Steamboat Ski Resort and the rest of the Colorado resorts arrive at the point that opening in time for the long Thanksgiving weekend became almost an imperative? It’s become an important stimulus to the local economy and just as important to stimulate vacation reservations.

The Thanksgiving opening has become an opportunity for vacation homeowners to use their property without sacrificing cash flow, causing property management companies to begin to train and staff up earlier than they would otherwise. Opening in the third week of November also gives ski shops an opportunity to get the most out of the holiday gift-giving season.

Snowmaking changes everything in the Rockies

But it would never come to pass most seasons without machine-made snow. In most seasons, snowmaking crews are the real rock stars of the Thanksgiving opening day.

In Steamboat, the genesis of snowmaking can be found in a couple of dreadful snow seasons that spanned the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Bottomless on 3 O’clock

Nancy Gray remembers a November when the snow was too deep to ski

“It was the Monday after Thanksgiving 1984, and when we listened to the morning ski report, it said 24 inches had fallen overnight. Everybody looked out the window, and there was nothing, so nobody believed it. But they didn’t want to not believe it, and you could feel the whole town moving toward the mountain.

“I remember standing at the top of Three O’Clock pointing my skis straight down and not going down. It was so deep, it was like chest deep, and I had to follow taller people to go down. Once you got going, you had to wave your arms to pull yourself up. It was the craziest thing.”

1976-77 was a game changer

Easily the most disappointing snow season in the history of the modern Steamboat ski season was the winter of 1976-77. And in those days, there was no snowmaking system to come to the rescue.

That winter will always be the one remembered for the way more than 400 local residents pitched in to help get the ski area open Dec. 20 by famously shoveling snow out of the trees onto Rudi’s Run (then known as Central Park), so that it could be skied.

However, the mountain closed on Valentine’s Day, and in spite of good late-season snow, the resort season was already a lost cause.

The ski area only opened, Gray said, because the resort had been chosen to host the inaugural Winter Special Olympics with Ethel Kennedy herself in charge of the festivities, and celebrity guests like John Denver and Clint Eastwood committed to attend.

Gray actually has warm memories of the Special Olympics. With virtually no destination skiers in town, the locals devoted themselves to the special athletes, and in doing so, forgot about their no-snow woes.

“It was like the highlight of their season,” Gray recalled. “We brought snow down from Rabbit Ears and built (a 1970s version of) a terrain park with tunnels between the Thunderhead lift and Torian Plum restaurant, and the kids loved it. Nobody had anything to do, so everybody in town worked on it.”

That disastrous season reverberated across Colorado ski country and some destination resorts hurried to install snowmaking systems, but Steamboat was not among them. That changed after a second poor snow season in the winter of 1980-81. Change finally came with new ownership of the ski area.

LTV-RDI, the Dallas, Texas, aerospace company that had introduced Steamboat to the modern era with the construction of the original “Stagecoach Gondola” and the first resort hotel of consequence, Steamboat Village Inn (now the Sheraton), had run out of enthusiasm for the resort after many good years.

Northwest Colorado Ski Corp., the new owner headed by the late Martin Hart, took the reins just in time for the discouraging season of 1980-81.

The ski area didn’t bother to count mid-mountain snowfall in October and November in that era as it does today, but whatever might have fallen wasn’t helped by the month of December, which produced a single inch of snow. And January, typically the heaviest snow month in Steamboat with an average of 72.26 inches, was only able to deliver 17 inches.

“That year was really almost a lost year because what little snow we could get on the trails was gone by noon. It was tough,” Loris Werner recalled.

Inauspicious debut

Werner described Hart as being open-minded enough and a good businessman who realized to make the resort work for his investors, he had to do something.

“In his second year, we dumped a bunch of money into a first phase of a snowmaking system that gave us the capability for a Thanksgiving opening,” Werner said.

But just not that first winter.

Werner tells a story about the less-than-spectacular debut of Steamboat’s snowmaking system.

“That first fall we had snowmaking installed we were going to have a big grand opening with snowmaking guns installed on the old Headwall slope at the base of the mountain,” and VIP’s assembled to watch the machine-made snow fall, Werner said.

Wouldn’t you know it? With shareholders and investors sipping cocktails and watching from the ski school reception area, it began to rain, and when crews cranked up the snowmaking system, it only blew more rain.

Ironically, that winter of 1981-82 turned out to enjoy ample natural snow, proving the point that November doesn’t make a ski season. Just 13 inches of snow fell at mid-mountain in November ’81, but it was followed by 113.5 inches in December and another 124 inches in January for a season total of 383.5 inches.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1


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