Snow inching up in record book

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— They call it locals' paradise abundant early season snowfall combined with an absence of tourists makes for some of the best skiing of the season at Steamboat. This month is developing into one of those early Decembers that skiers talk about for years to come.

Early morning skiers at the Steamboat Ski Area Wednesday were greeted by seven inches of untracked fluff at mid-mountain and a couple of inches more at the top of Priest Creek. To be sure, it was skiing in a snowstorm, with limited visibility. But nobody was complaining. There was enough untracked to go around.

"I can't believe it's only Dec. 13," Jim Schneider said. In his role as skier services director, Schneider oversees the Perfect Turn ski school at Steamboat. He's been keeping tabs of early season snow for more than 20 years and was sampling the product himself on Wednesday morning.

Wednesday's fluff came on top of 22 inches of heavier snow that fell on Sunday, firming up the resort's base.

Tim Hoff, who has been skiing here for four years, said he only takes his fat boards up on the mountain when snow conditions are this good.

"It's been so deep I've been stoked," Hoff said. "The first day (Nov. 18) was the deepest yet. This is just the beginning."

So just how good is the early season snow? The ski area counted 30 inches in November, beginning on Nov. 18, when the ski area opened four days early. The early opening provided a head start over last November; Steamboat totaled 21 inches of November snow in 1999.

Thus far in December, Steamboat has accumulated 30 inches of snow at mid-mountain and 34.5 at the summit, said ski area public relations manager Cathy Wiedemer. Those totals, through Dec. 13, are second only to 1996, when Steamboat had piled up 42.75 inches at mid-mountain by Dec. 13, and 53.75 at the summit, Wiedemer said. And this year's totals already exceed the 20-year average for the entire month.

By comparison, last December the ski area had counted just 19 inches of snow at mid-mountain and only 16.5 inches at the top by Dec. 13. Wiedemer said other weather factors can explain the lower snow measurement at the summit last year.

"It's a natural reading, so if it's windy up top, there are some variables that come into play."

If you're looking for a really skinny December snowfall, think back to 1995, when Steamboat recorded just 15 inches at mid-mountain and 10 inches at the summit by Dec. 13.

For truly epic Decembers, you have to go back to 1989, when Steamboat recorded 133.5 inches of snow at mid-mountain for the entire month.

Accumulated snowfall totals are one measure of snow conditions another is the settled based. The measured base at Steamboat on Dec. 13 was 42 inches at mid-mountain and 47 inches at the summit. That's above average, according to Wiedemer's research.

Dec. 13 snow base figures for recent years show 19 and 18 inches (at the summit) in 1999, 22 and 22 in 1998, 35 and 45 in 1997, 52 and 62 in the yardstick year of 1996, and 35 and 47 in 1995.

Wiedemer pointed out that historically, January is actually Steamboat's heaviest snow month.

So here's something to think about. In January 1996, Steamboat recorded more than 19 feet of snow in one month. That year's total of 233.5 inches blew away the old January record of 124 inches set in 1982. The ski area recorded a pair of amazing four-day totals in the latter half of January 1996. Snow totals for Jan. 17 through 20 were 6 inches, 12 inches, 11 inches and 15 inches. After a brief rest, Jan. 23 kicked in with 24 inches, followed by 8 inches on Jan. 24, 16 inches on Jan. 25 and another 16 inches on Jan. 26.

Andy Hogrefe has been skiing Steamboat since 1972 when he was racing professionally. He said the heaviest early snowfall in his memory fell in November and December 1983, when the ski area received measurable snow for 40 days in a row. The only problem was that Hogrefe couldn't take full advantage of all of the snow because he was working on Steamboat's race crew.

"We'd have a great time skiing to work it was awesome," Hogrefe said. "But after that, we had to get the race course ready and everybody else was having a great time."

Skiers and riders can only dream.

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