In high country, a winter fit for golf

Bobby Tenney of Grand Junction and Holly Noel of Arizona heat baked-potato soup after a snowshoe trip Monday on Grand Mesa. The parking lot at Mesa Lakes Recreation Area is snowpacked during a normal winter.

Anyone looking for evidence of the mild start to winter in Colorado need look no further than the Gypsum Creek Golf Course in Eagle County.

People were golfing for free on the closed course. There had been talk of opening it for business before a few inches of snow fell over the weekend.

“If we don’t get any more snow in a couple of weeks we could be open for sure,” said Steve Simianer, the course superintendent.

He said the course probably went a month without snow before this weekend.

“It reminds me of a Grand Junction winter but I’m several thousand feet higher,” Simianer said.

On Monday, the Natural Resources Conservation Service confirmed just how meager snow levels have been in Colorado. The state’s snowpack as of Jan. 1 was at its lowest point in a decade, the agency said.

The snowpack at the year’s beginning was 71 percent of average. That’s the fourth lowest in 30 years and the lowest since Jan. 1, 2002, when the state was at just 65 percent of average leading up to a summer of major wildfires in Colorado.

This year’s Jan. 1 statewide snowpack was about half of last year’s reading.

As of Monday, the Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack was just 59 percent of average. Portions of the basin had seen little recent snow until a storm that arrived on Saturday.

Rough on snowmobiles

Fortunately, the conservation service said reservoir storage remains generally good in Colorado due to last winter’s above-average snowpack. As of Jan. 1, storage levels were 105 percent of average statewide. They were at 112 and 104 percent, respectively, for the Colorado and Gunnison basins.

But stored water from last year’s snowmelt doesn’t do much to excite people concerned about having snow to play on this winter.

Carleton Hoffmeister, president of the Rifle Snowmobile Club, said one trail in the Coulter Lake area in the Flat Tops north of Rifle that had tremendous snow last year was bare this year, at least prior to this weekend’s snowfall. He said snow levels on many of the Flat Tops trails the club grooms have been too low so far to even set poles to mark them.

“It’s not good. Hopefully it will get better,” he said.

Some snowmobilers still have been getting out and riding, he said.

“But there’s been a lot of them messing their machines up, too. They get off a road and hit a rock or something,” he said.

Tom Renwick, a National Weather Service forecaster in Grand Junction, said he wishes he could say things will be getting much better in the next 10 days, snow-wise, but he can’t.

He said a small storm system is expected to drop a few inches on Aspen, Vail and Steamboat Springs Wednesday, and another on Saturday may yield even less precipitation.

Otherwise, “We’re talking through the 20th (of January), pretty much what you see is what you’ve got,” Renwick said.

Blame the La Niña weather pattern, which is in its second year, Renwick said.

“Usually what happens if you have two La Niñas in a row, climatologically the second one is much drier and warmer, which is exactly what we’re seeing,” he said.

Grim February?

Still, he said, some big storms could be in the offing eventually, as they often follow prolonged periods of dryness and warm temperatures.

“Sooner or later it has to break down—it has to—and when it does, oh boy, watch out. But it hasn’t happened yet,” Renwick said.

Relatively speaking, the Grand Mesa and Powderhorn Mountain Resort have fared pretty well in terms of snow so far this year. While ski areas in the Aspen area had enough snow coverage to support a busy holiday period, the lean conditions can lead to lots of gouged ski bases and nicked edges.

“The rental fleet got hammered over Christmas like it would any year with below-normal snow,” said Joel Mischke, owner of Basalt Bike & Ski.

“The holidays were good. We had a good Christmas season. People were still coming (to ski),” he said.

But while he was glad to see 8 inches hit Aspen-area mountains over the weekend, he’d like to see more soon.

“It’s going to get pretty grim here in January or February if we don’t get some more snow,” Mischke said. “People will be heading your way to go mountain biking.”

The light snow year to date has its positive sides. D’Wayne Gaymon, a foreman with the Colorado Department of Transportation in Glenwood Springs, said less time plowing has provided more time for crews to fix guardrails and signs and do other maintenance.

But Simianer thinks that even some ski-country residents who are enjoying Colorado’s mild start to winter wouldn’t mind seeing some more inclement weather arrive.

“I think even the golfers are a bit anxious for more snow because they know the engine that runs the economy up here,” he said.


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