Life before snowmaking

Scott Franz
Pierce Delhaute oversees snowmaking operations at the Steamboat Ski Area in 2012.
John F. Russell

Things looked so dire for Colorado’s ski resorts in December 1976, a priest in Aspen held daily prayer services and vowed to fast until it snowed.

Vail paid a a group of Ute Indians to come and dance for the white stuff.

People in Copper Mountain told the New York Times they were “doing their praying at the bars.”

And in Steamboat Springs, hundreds of townspeople eagerly went to the top of Thunderhead and shoveled snow onto runs they had shaken off of trees and onto Visqueen sheets.

Others filled garbage bags with snow and moved them to the slopes.

“People thought we were crazy, but it kept the spirits of the area up,” former Steamboat Ski Area President Glen Paulk said last week as he recalled what many have since called Steamboat’s worst winter. “We had a tremendous crisis, and we had a tremendous response from the community.”

The photo of those townspeople in Steamboat shoveling snow onto grassy patches of Mount Werner landed on the front page of the New York Times under the headline, “Scarcity of Snow in West Costs Ski Resorts Millions in Losses.”

Rod Hanna, who was the ski area’s PR director at the time, told the Times the ski area here had lost $1 million in revenue as of Dec. 18 because of the lack of snow.

“It was nothing but bad news for a couple of weeks,” Hanna said.

This winter crisis would have implications for the entire ski industry well beyond 1977.

Today’s skiers who have become accustomed to Thanksgiving opening days and better late season conditions, partly have this terrible winter to thank.

Ski areas that once shunned “noisy” snow machines were shaken by this winter and another one that would follow a few years later.

Ski area executives were no longer content taking their chances with millions of dollars at stake.

When Mother Nature didn’t deliver, they quickly started to spend big on snowmaking.

To understand what it took to motivate these stubborn ski areas to build miles and miles of snowmaking pipeline, one only needs to step back in time and see how bad it was in 1977.

Even the fish suffered

By Jan. 2, 1977, the Steamboat Ski Area had received only 29 inches of snow.

Winter flights had already been cancelled because airlines didn’t want to bring empty jets to town.

Weeks earlier, the New York Times reported ski areas west of Michigan were losing millions of dollars because they had not yet opened or weren’t drawing many visitors because of the lack of snow.

Colorado’s state senator sent urgent telegrams to President Gerald Ford requesting emergency funding in much the same way a community ravaged by a hurricane requests such funding today.

When the Steamboat Ski Area decided Feb. 13 to close down, the local employment office was flooded with people looking for help.

The Steamboat Pilot reported an estimated 600 employees were expected to lose their jobs, and the unemployment rate in the county was poised to soar from 6.8 percent to more than 10 percent in a month.

About 275 seasonal ski area employees reportedly lost their jobs, and another 35 working for a base area hotel and in the gondola building were laid off, as well.

“I look back at it really as a time of challenge and regret for the people it did financially hurt,” Paulk said. “I’ll always regret we couldn’t bring on a full crew at the ski area without the revenue.”

Steamboat’s worst winter took a toll on these employees, businesses and lodging properties.

The grim fallout also bled into reporting from this community’s local newspaper writers.

“Whiffs of wind lifted leaves, left from yesterday’s autumn, into the silent air,” Dee Richards wrote to lead her lengthy story about the economic impact of the winter drought. “The sun made a brief appearance in an otherwise drab grey day. Dust lay in long rows along Lincoln Avenue, giving further testimony to a community emerged in gloomy crisis.”

When the ski area closed, the department of welfare was “booked solid” from February through the first week of March with food stamp application conferences.

Using a calculation from the CU School of Business, which estimated a skier at that time spent an average of $45 per day during their vacation, the Steamboat Pilot reported “the loss to this community in revenues in lift tickets, food, lodgings, ski equipment and other purchases amounts to a staggering $15,630,000.”

In the winter of 1975-76, the ski area saw an estimated 466,459 skier days.

Following the closure, the ski area estimated it would see only a quarter of those prior season’s numbers, with only 116,903 skier days for the season.

Lodging reservations also took a hit, and the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association reported a “100 percent reservation cancelation for the months of February, March and April.”

“By Dec. 1, 1976, we had booked $1.1 million in winter reservations,” the Chamber’s Lee Griffith told the Pilot. “I think we will be lucky if $250,000 of that amount has been realized.”

The city itself took several cost-cutting measures to account for an estimated shortfall of $172,000 in sales tax revenue.

Free bus service stopped until the mountain re-opened, and all capital projects that year were put off.

Even the local fish suffered.

These grim reports were posted in the Steamboat Pilot amid photos of a deserted ski area, some with witty cutlines.

The empty gondola square was deemed to be as “quiet as a movie theatre.”

And at the empty ticket office, the only thing detected was “the blowing of last fall’s leaves.”

Finding hope

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for Ski Town USA.

Paulk, who likely had the most unenviable job in Northwest Colorado as a ski area executive at the time, said great challenges led to great opportunities.

“The morale of our people stayed very high,” Paulk said, recalling how eager community members tried things as crazy as shaking snow off of trees onto ski runs. “Any request we made to the community, we got it 100 percent. Steamboat should be proud for the rest of their life for their response.”

Despite the closure, he said community members were still patrons of businesses that largely depended on the ski traffic.

People frequented the “disaster sales” the shops were advertising.

The Pilot dedicated a full page to comical photos of unusual sights in Steamboat in February, including people playing tennis and rolling up their sleeves in warm weather.

To keep spirits high, Paulk said community members also went to the base area and hit golf balls to pass the time.

And when the ski area finally did reopen in early March, the community came out in force on a day that was declared Steamboat Day.

To mark the occasion, the Steamboat Springs School Board voted unanimously to close the schools on a Wednesday so students and staff could hit the slopes ahead of the official opening.

Rod Hanna recalls heading up to Storm Peak about that time to see what the snow conditions were like.

“The snow cat we were riding in got buried in the snow,” Hanna said.

Even after this quick change in snow fortune, ski areas across the west started talking.

How can we make it less likely this crisis will happen again?

A simple beginning

The science of snowmaking was discovered by accident.

As the New York Times succinctly explained in a 1971 article about the science, someone forgot to turn off a sprinkler at the end of the day, and then, it got cold.


In the morning, there was a blanket of snow around the sprinkler.

An engineering company in Lexington, Kentucky, adapted this formula into a commercial device, the Times reported.

The early models were expensive, costing as much as $400,000 per unit.

One model described in the Times article utilized a 7,000 horsepower J-65 Curtiss-Wright jet engine that was used in such aircraft as the B-57 bomber.

Another machine at the time was able to convert 35 gallons of water per minute into snow.

The unit cost $11,000.

It would be several years before Colorado’s ski resorts would embrace this technology and invest millions in new snowmaking infrastructure.

Many of the Rocky Mountain resorts once scoffed at “noisy” snow making machines.

“It used to be that whenever snow-making machines were suggested for the ski areas in this Rocky Mountain state, such a notion would meet with smug indifference,” the Times reported in 1976. “Colorado, with its heavy winter storms, it was felt, needed snow machines the way the tropics needed heating systems.”

Winter Park and Keystone were among the first resorts in the state to embrace the technology.

Winter Park introduced it at a cost of $1.2 million in 1976, according to the Times.

It was ironic, the Times noted, that Colorado wasn’t quickly embracing the technology, because snowmaking machines were pioneered at a ski area in Colorado Springs before eastern ski resorts started deploying them.

Even before they purchased more snow making technology, Colorado’s ski areas and water conservation groups invested tens of thousands of dollars in cloud seeding efforts.

Those efforts had generated much controversy in Routt County, where ranchers blamed the seeding of clouds for more intense snowfall, shorter summer growing seasons, car accidents and additional plowing costs.

Steamboat Springs would not embrace the snow-machines on a larger scale until the early 1980s.

“That winter in 1977 certainly had an impact on getting it,” Paulk said.

An insurance policy

Today, the Steamboat Ski Area’s snowmaking operations are overseen by 40 men and women.

The system can pump 4,200 gallons of water per minute, and each year, an estimated 100 million gallons of water is turned into snow.

In the past seven years alone, the ski area has constructed nearly 20 miles of water and air pipe for snowmaking.

The pipeline and guns have had a profound impact on skiing.

Jim “Moose” Barrows credits the technology with the rise of competitive snowsports that rely on half pipes and other specialized terrain.

Rod Hanna said before snowmaking, it was not unusual for the Steamboat Ski Area to have to wait until December to open.

“There was no guarantee at all we would be able to do anything,” he said.

Snowmaking, he said, has two big benefits.

It provides that early opening and also creates a base for later in the year, when warm temperatures in March and April quickly melt away snowpack.

The early Thanksgiving openings also make it less likely visitors will be able to cancel their Christmas lodging reservations due to a lack of snow.

This was the insurance policy that was born partly out of that terrible winter of 1977.

Paulk, who still tells the story of the ski area’s closure at dinners and family gatherings, doesn’t remember that winter with the sense of gloom some might expect.

“We had such a heartwarming feeling from the people and their efforts in the community that it’s been remembered since the day it happened,” he said.

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