Tom Ross: The winter of powder-eating grins

Record snowfall didn't produce deepest powder days, just more of 'em

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

Did you get the sense the snow gods were toying with us for most of the past week? Based on an optimistic weather forecast, we were poised to write the story of Steamboat's record snowfall the night of March 13. However, the storm that was touted to produce 14 inches of fluff whiffed on Northwest Colorado.

We've been waiting to pop open the champagne ever since. Forecasts of big snowstorms this week never proved out. Denver got more snow than the Yampa Valley did.

Finally, late on Thursday afternoon, a blustery storm dropped 4 inches of snow at Thunderhead, bringing the Steamboat Ski Area's season snow total to a nice, round 450 inches.

It felt a little anticlimactic, but it was enough to make history and eclipse the old record of 447.75 set in the season of 1996-97.

With any cooperation from the aforementioned precipitation deities, by closing day April 6, we could go well into uncharted snow territory. I don't feel like we're going to see 500 inches this winter, but 460 certainly is within reach.

Just in case you were thinking that you and I are the only snow nerds in town, let me introduce you to ski historian Jim Fain. He is a longtime Steamboat skier who divides his time between his home in Dallas and his condo at Chateau Chamonix.

Fain is a retired businessman and former UPI newsman who logged between 80 and 90 days on the slopes this winter. He's so engrossed with snowfall statistics that he compiled an 11-page bound booklet this month. It is crammed with every statistic he could find about seasonal snowfall and ski area visitation - not just for Steamboat, but for the entire state of Colorado.

Fain mailed about 20 copies to friends and acquaintances. He relied on records maintained by Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Ski Country USA, as well as Sureva Towler's notable book, "The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs."

Fain feels strongly that the winter of 1973-74 might be the actual record snowfall season. However, you and I may never know for certain. The Steamboat Ski Area lost its old, hand-written snowfall records from the early '70s when it converted to computers.

Consulting Towler's book and the Colorado Climate Center snowfall totals for downtown Steamboat, Fain projects snowfall in the winter of 1973-74 could have exceeded 500 inches.

Towler's book lists the downtown record snowfall as 266.8 inches in 1973-74. That compares to downtown snowfall of 236.5 inches in the big winter of 1983-84, a decade later. That winter, which saw 40 days and 40 nights of measurable snowfall at the beginning of the season, produced what was celebrated as record snowfall at the time - 447.5 inches.

Fain notes the mountain snowfall nearly doubled the downtown total.

"Using the exact same mathematical downtown-to-mountain ratio that existed in 1983-84, the cumulative mid-mountain snowfall for 1973-74 would be 504.83 inches," Fain said.

Of course, from day to day, there is no direct correlation between downtown and mid-mountain snowfall. Still, his point is worth considering.

Longtime Steamboat skier Andy Hogrefe confirms that 1973-74 was a very big winter, he just doesn't recall how big.

"I can remember that on closing day, my brother and I were jumping off Tornado Lane all afternoon. We were sitting in snow up to our chests when Ski Patrol came by and told us we had to go," Hogrefe said.

Fain and I found ourselves reminiscing last week about big snow years and remarking how each is different from the other.

For more than a dozen years, the season of 1983-84 reigned as the holder of the season snowfall record. January, typically the snowiest month of the season, only produced 46 inches in 1984.

Hogrefe recalls that 1983-84 was the winter that heavy snow slid off the roof of his townhome and pinned his wife to the front door.

It was a very different story in 1995-96, when the ski area recorded 441.25 inches of snow. Almost half of the winter's snow fell in the crazy month of January 1996 - 216.5 inches of it. I know for certain that some Steamboat residents misplaced their cars in snow banks that month.

Fain has a memory of January 1996 that is particularly interesting.

"I can remember there were eight or 10 nights when it didn't snow at all," he said. "That means it had to average 10 inches a night" every other day of the month.

The winter of 2007-08, with back-to-back-to-back 100-inch months, will always be remembered as the season of constant powder-eating grins.

- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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