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Surviving the Drought of 1980-81 in Breckenridge, CO

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Fifty-seven inches of snow fell in town that season. And most of those flakes came after February. The ski area was closed for months. Businesses shuttered. Debt mounted. The drought winter of 1980-81 was brutal to Breckenridge. How did Breckenridge weather the adversity? And what lessons does the winter of 1980-81 hold for today during the COVID-19 crisis?

It was a winter of legend. Long-time locals still talk about the winter of 1980-81, when no snow fell and few visitors came to Breckenridge. Compared to the seasonal in-town snowfall average of 166” and on-mountain average of over 325”, the flurries that did arrive were a pittance. It was one of the most devastating times in Breckenridge’s modern history.

The drought of 1980-81 was especially painful because it came on the heels of the drought of 1976-77 when 92” of snow fell in town from October through April. Many ski areas learned their lesson that year and installed snowmaking. Not Breckenridge. When the 1980-81 season came along, Breckenridge Ski Area was on its fourth owner, Twentieth Century Fox. “We called them 19th Century Fox because Copper Mountain and Keystone had snowmaking and we did not,” recalled businessowner Don Lidke.

snow making in Breckenridge in 2015

The Breckenridge Ski Area reported just 86” of snow that 1980-81 season, and skier numbers dropped to nearly half the previous season, just 195,000 souls. Ski area officials long maintained that Breckenridge didn’t need snowmaking due to our high elevation and reliable precipitation. To prove them wrong, Lidke and fellow business leaders in town decided to make snow on their own on the Carter Park Ski Hill (now sledding hill). Lidke remembers that they cobbled together a home-made snowmaking system. They rented a huge compressor on wheels, borrowed great lengths of fire hose from the Red, White and Blue Fire Department, and connected it all to a nozzle on loan from Copper Mountain. After spending the entire night trying to make snow, everything finally came together -- proper air pressure, water pressure, and lower temperatures – and out the nozzle came snow. “We made many ‘whales’ of snow that could be cut by machine and spread around. We were thrilled,” according to Don Lidke.

Despite lack of snowmaking, the Breckenridge Ski Area did open. For a few days over the Christmas holiday and then again in February through the end of the season, the ski area was in operation. But the skiing was marginal at best. Bob Girvin remembers taking off his skis to walk to the next pile of snow. John C.J. Mueller recalls that it “was so rocky we were going to Gart Brothers in Denver and buying left over SNIAGRAB skis for $5-$10 a pair and destroying them after just a few days.” Dan Ahern discovered the importance of ‘rock skis,’ skiing on Springmeier with about 2” of snow and rocks. Kerri Hannon Marsh tried out for ski school that season: “We hopped from pile of snow to pile!”

The business climate was equally dismal. Not helping the situation were record high interest rates. Interest rates on a home or business loan spiked in 1980 and 1981 to as much as 20%. Becky Conkling bought a condo in 1981, paying 16 5/8% interest on the loan. Bob Girvin observed a real estate sell off during that time frame; between low rental returns and high interest rates, investors unloaded their mountain properties.

John Warner was in an even more difficult place. He had just completed significant lease-hold improvements on his new dental office in November 1980 and his interest rate was floating with prime, paying up to 20% on his loan. “I certainly experienced first-hand little or no income in a time of sky-high interest rates and a depressed economy,” he reminisced. “I wondered if I should have invested in a snow-dependent community.”

Rick Bly remembers that winter as “a killer,” especially with almost no business during the holiday period. He operated the Drug Store and a liquor store at that time. He wasn’t able to pay suppliers and his tenants couldn’t pay their rent. He raided his Pepsi machine for quarters to buy groceries for the family. “It was truly a Skinny Winter,” he recalled. A loan from the local bank helped him get through that winter, though it took him three years to pay it back.

The community came through for each other. Just as Bly received support from his banker, many others lifted their fellow community members with personal loans. Delinquent accounts were paid off over time. Employers found ways to keep their people busy. Dan Bitterman was supposed to work at the Peak 9 Restaurant that season, instead “luckily the restaurant threw me some hours building picnic tables and what not.”

Skiers still found a way to ski. Many memories of the drought winter of 1980-81 include stories of skiing. From rock skis to snow piles, skiers made it work. Tory Hauser skied on Baldy often and every full moon, and also enjoyed a “great season of ice climbing and mountaineering.” Bitterman skied the backcountry as well. Some traveled to Copper and Keystone to get their turns on the man-made. Desperate Vail bussed their guests to Keystone for skiing.

Ullr Fest went on as usual, though it did little to appease the snow god. On January 29, 1981, John C.J. Mueller and friends worked on their parade float in shorts and no shirt. Bob Wentzell used white sheets on his float to imitate snow. Mary Rianoshek was the Community Events Director for the Breckenridge Resort Association. She shared that she was being interviewed by a Denver TV station, standing on Main Street, where there was absolutely no snow. “As I was talking to them, a tumbleweed made its way across the street - right in front of the camera!”

Ullr Parade image from 1981

While Ullr Fest revelries didn’t result in the desired snowfall, it did a lot to lift the spirits of the people of Breckenridge. Broomball was added to the Ullr Fest activities, to great delight. Mary Rianoshek explained: “The town pulled together, as always, and of course the parade went on as scheduled. One of the highlights!”

The Breckenridge Ski Area made a huge investment in snowmaking for the 1981-82 ski season. No longer would staff have to shovel snow out of the trees onto visqueen and haul it to the slopes. The ski business in Breckenridge has been resilient to the vagaries of weather ever since.

While there are parallels from the drought winter of 1980-81 to the COVID-19 catastrophe of today, there are also significant differences. Droughts are regional and the virus is pandemic. A few skiers continued to come to Breckenridge during the drought year, instead of the total ski area closure of March 2020. Businesses could continue to operate, albeit with fewer customers, instead of completely shut down by order of health officials in 2020.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the generosity and caring of the community. Today as then, people are looking out for each other, sharing resources and encouragement. The Town of Breckenridge Government is much stronger than it was in 1981, and today offers loans and grants to keep small businesses in business. Breckenridge has weathered great adversity in the past, and all indicators are that it will rise again above the COVID crisis.

The Breckenridge Heritage Alliance is grateful to the many people who shared their stories of modern Breckenridge for the Oral History Archives. Read more about Breckenridge’s history at the BHA blog spot.

written by Leigh Girvin

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