It’s been worse, it’s been better

Purg’s snow more variable than many others, but still a good bet

Season total snowfall at Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort has ranged from a high of 500 inches for the 1978-79 season to a low of 46.5 inches for the 1976-77 season. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald file photo

Season total snowfall at Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort has ranged from a high of 500 inches for the 1978-79 season to a low of 46.5 inches for the 1976-77 season.

The following snow report should make skiers and snowboarders smile.

If history is any indication, there always will be enough powder at Purgatory to make it worth the trip up the hill.

But the snowpack isn’t consistent, said Chet Anderson, one of Purgatory’s founders.

“There’s a bigger deviation in yearly snowfall at Purgatory than you see elsewhere,” Anderson said. “The snowpack at Aspen or Vail will be more evenly distributed.”

Purgatory’s snowpack is a phenomenon of the Southwest Colorado climate, Anderson said.

Whatever the reason, since the Purgatory resort, now Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort, opened in 1965-66, the winter’s average total snowfall – generally November into April – has been 234.6 inches.

As of Wednesday, DMR has received 168 inches of snow this season, according to its website.

In only a couple of 47 ski seasons has the snow level truly disappointed.

(In contrast to the variable snowfall, the price of a daily lift ticket for an adult age 18 to 64 has increased – from $4.50 in 1965-66 to $75 today.)

There’s always snow at Purgatory, but measuring it isn’t a science, said Robert McDaniel, a member of the resort’s ski patrol since 1977-78 and former director of the Animas Museum in Durango for more than 30 years.

McDaniel’s affinity for history led him to methodical data gathering and recording of snow levels for future reference.

“I’m glad to pull all this information together,” McDaniel said. “This gave me a reason to go back and fill in a few gaps and put all the snowfall records in order for posterity.”

He offered some caveats:

Purgatory doesn’t have sophisticated instruments to measure snowfall and water content. It’s done by hand with platters and yardsticks.

The seasonal totals for the first seven years is based on U.S. Forest Service estimates.

Human-made snow – the system was installed before the 1982-83 season – doesn’t count in the totals.

Snow that fell in a given year before ski patrol personnel started working or after the resort closed for the season wasn’t counted.

On days the resort didn’t open, ski patrol members weren’t on duty to measure snowfall.

“It’s quite possible there are a few errors in the chart I put together,” McDaniel said. “For purposes of averages and long-term trends, however, any remaining errors will be inconsequential.”

Despite the annual variation in the snowpack, the total season average snowfall, with a few exceptions, has occurred without tremendous fluctuation.

Extremely heavy snowfalls occurred in 1978-79 (500 inches), 1974-75 (458 inches) and five years in which the total ranged from 311 to 339 inches.

The lowest total was 46.5 inches in 1976-77 when the ski season opened Jan. 6 and closed Feb. 17.

The viability of the 1980-81 season also appeared in doubt, but it escaped disaster at the last moment, McDaniel said.

“March was the only big month, and it saved us,” McDaniel said. “We got back-to-back dumps in the nick of time.”

The season total was 144 inches.

“Prior to those big snowstorms, the base area basically had no snow,” McDaniel said. “We had to spread straw on the mud so people could get to the lifts.”

Paul Folwell recalls that lean year.

“We had shovel crews that would cover rocks and dirt and mud,” he said. “We spent a lot of time shoveling snow from trees and elsewhere.”

Folwell, now a studio painter whose work sometimes reflects skiing, was at the resort from the outset. Among his duties as mountain manager was supervising maintenance and the ski patrol.

“I did a lot of research on snowmaking, but I left in 1982 before they actually began doing it that winter,” Folwell said. “I also took a lot of snow measurements on the Cascade Divide in case they expanded that way, which they never did.”

Overall, in 47 seasons, total snow numbers fell into the 100-inch range 14 times, in the 200-inch range 25 times and in the 300-inch range 5 times. Then there were the three anomalies – 46.5, 458 and 500.

No monthly snowfall totals were available for the first nine years of the 47 seasons. But the cumulative monthly totals in inches for 38 years were: October, 212; November, 1,029; December, 1,824.5; January, 1,864.5; February, 1,929.5; March, 1,777.5; and April, 440.5.

It snows less at the beginning and the end of a season. Snow fell in October six years and in April 26 years.

Chet Anderson, the early-day resort developer, began checking out potential sites for skiing in 1962.

“Purgatory was one of the better locations,” Anderson said. “It was close to Durango, there was a highway to it and it had snow.”

Anderson didn’t have a financial interest in the venture, but he was involved in site development. He was the general manager and later did construction and planning. He left for good in 1990.

daler@durangoherald.com

Chet Anderson, an early-day developer of Purgatory, said the site selected had three big benefits: It was close to Durango, close to the highway and it got snow. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald file photo

Chet Anderson, an early-day developer of Purgatory, said the site selected had three big benefits: It was close to Durango, close to the highway and it got snow.

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