Two weeks into December, with no sign of Old Man Winter, many Durangoans are questioning whether Southwest Colorado will ever see snow.
The slow start to the winter season paints a bleak picture for businesses and employees who depend on the snow. Many ski resorts across Colorado, including Purgatory Resort, are operating solely on man-made snow.
Weather forecasters say the dry conditions may be a sign of what’s to come for much of the winter, which officially starts Thursday. A La Niña weather pattern appears to be shaping up, bringing cold and snow to the Northwest and unusually dry conditions to the southern tier of the U.S.
Meteorologist Andrew Lyons with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction said there has been no recorded precipitation in Durango this month, making it the driest start to December on record.
He said temperatures, too, are continuing to run above average.
“We started off November very dry and warm, and we broke several record highs here and around the state,” Lyons said.
Precipitation levels are recorded at Durango-La Plata County Airport. The National Weather Service recorded 0.13 inches of precipitation for the month of November, more than an inch below what was recorded in November 2016.
Snowpack is 22 percent of average for this time of year for the San Miguel, Dolores, San Juan and Animas basins – the lowest average in the state. Statewide, snowpack is at 52 percent of normal.
The average high temperature for December is 39 degrees, with an average low of 13 degrees. And although most nights have been cold this month with an average of 11 degrees, the days are significantly warmer, with an average of 48 degrees – nine degrees above average.
The warm temperatures aren’t showing any signs of letting up, either. Daytime highs are expected in the mid- to upper-40s this weekend and into early next week.
If the dry spell continues, Durango may be headed for one of the driest winters on record, which previously were recorded in 2001 and 2002, Lyons said.
Jeff Givens, a self-taught weather observer in Durango with a Facebook following of more than 3,000 people, said Durango’s terrain and various microclimates make it difficult to accurately predict the weather.
“We have some of the highest elevation changes in Colorado, and many microclimates created by the peaks and valleys,” he said. “Depending upon a storm’s direction, that can be enhanced or diminished, so you don’t know until it gets here what is going to happen.”
He said an area of high pressure over the western United States is pushing storms up into Canada and down into the Upper Midwest and East Coast.
And because big snowstorms are memorable, people often forget the dry winters in Durango, he said.
“It’s been warm and dry, but it is not highly unusual,” Givens said. “It has happened in the past and will happen again. Typically, all you have to do is look at what’s happening on the East Coast, and generally speaking, the opposite is happening here.”
He said dating back to 1897, about 25 percent of all Decembers in Durango have had 6 inches or less of snow.
Warm and dry winters can be a godsend to residents who hate snow-covered roads, but for skiers and snowboarders, it’s a bummer. And for ski resorts and their employees, it’s a financial hardship.
Colin McBeath, general manager for Purgatory Resort, said the ski resort is fully staffed and doing everything it can to avoid layoffs – including reducing staff hours.
“Every winter, we hire about 900 to 1,200 people based upon last year’s predictions and staffing needs, and that includes volunteers,” he said. “We have staff hired that are trained and have gone through orientation, and we invested a substantial amount of money in them.”
He said all of the snow at the resort is currently man-made and covers about 20 to 25 percent of the entire mountain.
“That leaves the rest of the mountain without snow and hoping Mother Nature does her job,” he said. “We are trying to maintain minimum staffing levels without layoffs so that we are in a good position to maintain our workforce when the snow hits.”
Hesperus Ski Area delayed its opening indefinitely because it lacks snow-making infrastructure.
The delayed opening of some ski areas and limited terrain at others has hurt the winter economy, including businesses that offer ski and snowboard rentals.
Ski Barn owner Bill Brown said ski sales and rentals have inevitably slowed because of the dearth of snowfall, but the business is riding on people looking forward to shredding powder.
“We had a super busy fall; people are fired up to go skiing,” he said. “We have our fingers crossed for snow, and have a wait-and-see attitude.”
Brown said last winter was not nearly as “doom and gloom,” but he remains positive about upcoming months.
“This weather affects everyone, and we are all in this together,” he said. “When the snow does come – and it will – you will hear a huge sigh of relief from everyone in Durango.”
In another display of how warm and dry it has been, 2nd Ave Sports said it continues to see steady bike sales as of mid-December – a time usually dominated by winter sports.
“We’ve had quite a few sales because people are still riding (bikes),” said sales associate Cindy Dahlberg. “Last year, I remember we had snow going into Christmas, so I think we definitely were up in ski sales more than we are this year. The high country has still been ridable for bikes.”
It’s not only retail stores feeling the financial pain of a dry December. Restaurants and hotels also tend to suffer when ski conditions are underwhelming.
Rod Barker, who owns the Strater Hotel, sees the warm weather as a double-edged sword.
He said Durango has over the years migrated away from being a ski town, and is instead a town with a ski area.
“The hotel gets some skiers for sure, but the funny thing is, what impacts us more than skiing is the Polar Express train,” he said. “The nice weather really does a lot for people who want to visit and not worry about the snow. There is a different market here now.”
Barker said the weather, although warm, is not surprising.
“I’ve come to know December and early January skiing is very unpredictable,” he said.
But before people completely lose hope, there is still the possibility of a white Christmas. A more active weather pattern is expected to move into the region next week, bringing with it the chance of snow.
“We are looking at a major pattern shift coming up, and it is important to remember that it is technically not winter yet, either,” Lyons said. “We should see it cool down some, and snow is a possibility.”