High and dry

Skiers, farmers keeping their eyes to the skies

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— Colorado's dryland wheat farmers and ski area operators have a couple of things in common. They both put on bibbed overalls to go to work (although wheat farmers typically pay $200 less for their overalls than do skiers) and they both look to the jet stream for their salvation.

It's all about snow.

A lack of early snow led officials of the Steamboat Ski Area to announce Friday they would postpone opening day this year from Nov. 21 to Nov. 30. That announcement was in contrast to last year when the ski area opened four days early, and November 1996, when the ski area had so much snow by Thanksgiving it opened a week early.

Local skiers and riders, always eager to get their share of untracked powder before the tourist season begins in earnest, are apt to light votive candles and ask for snow before they go to bed each night. However, for much of the resort industry, early ski area openings are about generating publicity that makes the phones ring at the reservations center leading to bookings for December and January. Except for a small burst of ski tourism over the long Thanksgiving weekend, the resort season doesn't begin in earnest in Steamboat until Dec. 20.

Just the same, people are getting anxious about the lack of snow. Andy Hogrefe knows better.

Hogrefe has seen it all in more than 25 years working in ski shops and on the race crew at the ski area.

"We were at a parents meeting at the Winter Sports Club last night," Hogrefe said. "My son has a new coach from Oregon and he was making plans for the kids to be hiking if we don't have snow by Christmas. I couldn't hold it any longer. I said, 'Boy, you really did just move here.'"

The parents who have lived in Steamboat for many years know better, Hogrefe said.

Hogrefe's message is that things can change quickly in late November and early December.

"I remember I was working on the race crew in 1989," Hogrefe recalled. "We had a little snow on Heavenly Daze and we were trying to put up fencing for the women's World Cup. I can remember it was Dec. 2 and it was a Sunday. It was like 65 degrees and as soon as we drilled holes for the fence posts, they would fall down. So, we knocked off and I went for a bike ride on the Oak Creek loop."

Hogrefe remembers a dramatic turnaround before race day.

"We had to go back up on the Daze and dig the fences out of the snow because they were buried," Hogrefe said.

Statistics kept by the ski area show Steamboat's 20-year average for snow (on the mountain) is 27.55 inches. But Steamboat skiers may have become spoiled during the past five years when Steamboat's November snowfall averaged a full 10 inches more.

The biggest November snowfall in recent years occurred in 1996, when the ski area was already measuring 26 inches of snow at mid-mountain by Halloween. Temperatures that year were also cold enough for productive snowmaking throughout November.

Last November was another year reminiscent of '96; the ski area opened four days early on Nov. 18 with waist-deep powder. As it turned out, opening day was the biggest powder day of the entire winter. Steamboat received well-timed dribs and drabs of snow last winter that were sufficient to keep skiing conditions consistently good. But it's hard to find anyone who has stories about great powder days on Mount Werner last winter.

After getting off to a fast start with 30 inches of November snow last year, and an above-average 78 inches in December, January and February were disappointing with 47 inches and 49 inches of snow, respectively.

November 1999, although colder than this November, was closer to what the valley is experiencing this year. The week before Thanksgiving 1999 a few hardy souls were still water-skiing at Stagecoach Reservoir. The ski area opened on schedule Nov. 20 with a modest stripe of manmade snow on Headwall. Skiing was free on opening day, and the annual scholarship benefit day for the Winter Sports Club was postponed.

Within three days, two feet of snow had fallen on Mount Werner and the ski area opened the gondola.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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