While the 2011-12 ski season will be remembered as one of the roughest, it hardly claims the worst-ever crown.
That title remains — and will likely always remain — with 1976-77.
In December 1976, then U.S. Sen. Floyd Haskell held a press conference urging President Gerald Ford to declare Colorado’s snow-starved high country a disaster area eligible for economic relief.
A sweeping drought had left ski slopes barren in the week before Christmas and Haskell’s ill-timed plea pretty much buried the season before it even started. By Christmas, only 19 of the state’s 32 ski areas were open and tourists were heeding the senator’s warning and cancelling ski vacations in droves.
The late Denver Post columnist
Charlie Meyers visited Aspen that month and wrote of businesses “hacking out a hand-to-mouth existence” as tourists cancelled reservations.
“The result is a growing pall, a pessimism which feeds on itself and grows worse,” Meyers wrote. “The psychology is like the aftermath of a train wreck.”
Vail called in Ute Indians for a snow dance. In Steamboat, 425 residents — most of them jobless — spent the week before Christmas shoveling snow from the trees onto slopes. Crested Butte reported 100 percent reservation cancellations in the days before Christmas. Telluride and Purgatory didn’t open for the holiday.
Resorts that did have snow — largely thanks to then-uncommon and often disdained snowmaking at hills like Keystone, Winter Park and Eldora — barely opened, with a handful of runs and clogged liftlines.
And amidst the chaos, winners emerged in the 1976-77 season. Loveland saw visits climb 30 percent, topping 200,000 for the first time. Keystone bumped up 15 percent. But statewide, visits plummeted 40 percent.
Garry Mitchell was serving his first year of president at industry trade group Colorado Ski Country in 1976-77. He said the “shock value” of the season will forever resonate through the ski industry.
“This was something that just didn’t happen,” said Mitchell, who served at the helm of Ski Country for four years. “Since 1976, the ski industry knows there will be bad years.”
And just in case anyone forgot, five years later it happened again.
The season of 1980-81 — the so-called Season of None — saw resorts limping through December and closing in January. Only 26 of the state’s 32 ski areas were open in January that season. Some Breckenridge old-timers remember trucks hauling snow harvested from the snowfield at St. Mary’s up to Summit County to patch a 12-inch to 16-inch midseason base. By April 1981, the drought that stretched from Maine to California had pummeled the industry, plunging skier visits by 10 million. It was the year that snowmaking — scorned only a few years earlier by those who felt manmade snow sullied Colorado’s marketing of the country’s finest powder — became essential.
In 1979-1980, 435 acres of Colorado’s ski slopes were blanketed in manmade snow. By the post-apocalyptic season of 1981-82, pride-swallowing resorts were covering more than 2,000 acres. Today, the state’s 26 resorts can cover almost 5,000 acres in manmade snow.
“1981 was an epiphany year for the industry in the Rocky Mountain West,” said Michael Berry , president of the National Ski Areas Association. “There might have been some people saying they didn’t need snowmaking going into that season, but no one — no one — was saying that coming out.”
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374 or firstname.lastname@example.org