Bill Sniffin: Our Town Has Been Buried In Snow And Enduring Freezing Temperatures This Winter

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By Bill Sniffin, Columnist

Between hurricanes and blizzards, this has been a winter to remember for retirees Jerry and Cassy Venters of Lander. 

Normally, they head to their condo on Sanibel Island off the Florida coast and never worry about cold weather or even winter-style clothes. 

But Hurricane Ian pretty much destroyed Sanibel and the Venters found themselves experiencing a “real” Lander winter.

No problem. Winters over the past three years have been warm and open. No snow. No harsh freezes. 

But this year? Yikes. 

“Thank God for Walmart and thrift stores,” Cassie says, as she and her husband had to outfit themselves in a hurry. Because they expected to be gone every winter, they had donated all their winter clothes and other cold-weather gear. 

Hurricane Ian

But first, let’s go back to September. 

Hurricane Ian was the deadliest hurricane in Florida since 1935, killing 146 people in the Sunshine State. It was a Category 4 storm and moved slowly, wreaking incredible havoc. 

In its way was the beautiful Sanibel Island home of the Venters’ annual winter retreat. The condo was damaged so badly there was no way they could spend their winter there.

Thus, it was time to “cowboy up” and for the Venters to spend the winter in Wyoming. 

“Originally, pre-Hurricane Ian, we would have gone to Florida sometime early November and stayed at our condo on Sanibel,” Cassie says. “Florida winter weather can be beautiful 50s and 60s with low humidity in December/January, but quickly starts warming up in February and with the warmth comes humidity.

“We love the dry Wyoming summers here and are finding the dry winters don’t feel as cold as the humid winters of Missouri, where we used to live.” 

Lander is unique in Wyoming because it gets so little wind. Back in the 1960s, it was ranked one of the 10 least windy places in the USA. But with the lack of wind comes snow – lots of snow. And cold – bitter cold. 

Our first decade in Wyoming saw the brutal winters of 1972-73 when 216 inches of snow fell and 1978-79 when the mercury spent most of winter below zero – really! 

In recent years, those kinds of winters have gone away. Global warming or not, residents have appreciated the dry winters and the warm temperatures. 

But not this year. 

Just before Christmas, the mercury dipped to minus 39, which was the coldest in 20 years. This was on top of a snowfall that was between 14 and 18 inches depending on what side of town you lived on.

Then just before New Year’s most of Wyoming got hit with a big winter storm. Lander got 27 inches. Yes, more than 2 feet. And then it just snowed another 6 inches this past week. 

A Winter Wonderland

It is a winter wonderland. It is white as far as the eye can see in all directions. And some folks are worried about spring flooding since normally most of our snow comes in March and April.  

The reason Lander gets so little wind is that it sits below the towering Wind River Mountains. There are more than 44 places in Fremont County over 13,000 feet. All that wind just blows over the town. 

As a small plane pilot for 30 years, I can personally tell horror stories of trying to land an airplane where you are tossed around like a leaf until you get about 500 feet above town and suddenly, everything is just fine.

So now that Cassie and Jerry have been enduring their first legitimate Lander winter, what other observations can they make?

They love the images of the black angus cattle against all that snow. But they do not like the fact that pellets for their stove were being rationed. 

Driving the streets can be a challenge because of the ruts. The Lander Street Department does a pretty good job clearing snow, but it is still awful because of the chinook winds that came and melted a bunch of it after Christmas before the next big blizzard. 

So that summarized what we have endured in Lander. How about other parts of the state? Plus, here are some old stories I have collected over the years.

Other Winter Images

Longtime journalist Dave Simpson recalls: “It was the beginning of January in 1974. I was brand new at the Laramie Boomerang. We had a heavy snow, then a partial thaw, then a deep freeze. The roads in town refroze and were like railroad tracks. I reported one accident in which the cop said he fell down three times on the ice between his car and the cars involved in the accident, so he didn’t give anyone a ticket. Made a good story.

“People were fuming over the state of the streets in town. I asked City Manager Harold Yungmeyer how the snow removal was going, and he said, ‘Pray for sunshine!’ He said snow removal is a ‘100% losing proposition.’

“’Pray for sunshine’ made a pretty good headline on the front page, and then ‘Fire Yungmeyer’ bumper stickers started showing up in town.

“Later that year, Yungmeyer left Laramie to take the city manager job in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I don’t think they get much snow there.”

Here Are Some Real Horror Stories

The late Clay James, who operated Jackson Lake Lodge at Moran for decades, recalls minus 54 one cold winter day in the mid-1970s.

“Thankfully we woke up as the power went off. We called all our employees to turn on the faucets and start the fireplaces. The power was off for several days. Never have I been so cold,” he recalled.   

Former Wheatland, Torrington and Sundance publisher Mike Lindsey recalled the blizzard of 1949, which history generally considers the worst ever in the state.

“Up in Sundance, cattle froze standing up. Wind blew drifts into buildings through keyholes in doors. Machinery would not start. Kids who stuck their tongues to the door handle did not get thawed until their junior year!” 

Not sure about that last fact, which was reminiscent of the famous scene from the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story.”

The late Jim Smail of Lander once told me about snowmobiling with a group that included Charlton Heston at Togwotee Lodge in 1964 where the mercury dipped to minus 64. No, they did not go sledding that day.

Former Wyoming Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau of Gillette recalls playing Laramie in football when the wind chill was minus 65. 

Jim Hicks says, “I know a bunch from Buffalo who were riding snowmachines in Yellowstone in the early 1970s and it was so cold it froze their whiskey into a solid block.”

Greybull native Mike Schutte has a story to tell: “My wife Karen and I were married on Dec. 22, 1962, in Emblem, took a three-day honeymoon to Red Lodge, and headed back to Laramie and moved in to student housing. 

“On Jan. 12, 1963, the temperature dropped to minus 50 degrees. I will never forget going outside that morning. So quiet, thought it was the end of the world. Nothing moving that we could see or hear. It was a little scary. Finally heard a vehicle that was driving around and trying to jump-start some vehicles.  

“Student housing was built with cinderblocks, with a lot of leakage around doors, windows and other places. Couldn’t get much heat in our small unit. Needless to say, we stayed in bed most of the day with extra blankets. 

“Sadly, one school teacher who walked to work, frostbit her lungs and died! Never experienced cold like that since. Brrr!”

What are your favorite winter stories? Please email them to me. 

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