Rainy day attractions at ski areas

Creating winter economies based on rain instead of snow

by Allen Best

As we wind down March, Chicago remains a quilt of snow and grass. Ski areas, however,  have been tossing in the towel on the warm and snowless West Coast.

Among the 20-some ski areas in the West to close early this season are Sugar Bowl Resort, Sierra-at-Tahoe, and Homewood, all in the Lake Tahoe area. Washington state’s Mt. Baker remains “temporarily suspended,” as it has been since March 8.

Squaw Valley, meanwhile, has begun pumping sales of its season passes for next winter with an unusual guarantee:  “If you ski and ride less than five days next winter season, we’ll credit you for unused days on your next pass.”

The Sierra Nevada has received only one-third of the natural snowfall in this fourth and perhaps worst year of drought. In parts, such as the central Sierra, snowpack measured at just 13 percent of average.

Now, newspapers are conjecturing about life after skiing if, as climate models predict, rain replaces snow more frequently in the future.

The trend has been ongoing since 1980 and isn’t going away, says Mike Anderson, state climatologist at the California Department of Water Resources.

“We definitely have an expectation for warmer temperatures,” Anderson told the Sacramento Bee. “So years like this winter will definitely become more the norm instead of being the outlier.”

The somewhat trite response is that ski resorts have to expand their offerings, to become more year-round resorts. Newspapers on both sides of the Sierra Nevada approached this angle, and found plenty of people willing to talk about how magnificent mountain towns were during summer months.

The Bee pointed to investments in essentially non-skiing infrastructure. Vail Resorts is investing in zip lines and other summer attractions at Heavenly, for example. Boreal Mountain Resort several years ago opened a 33,000-square-foot indoor recreation facility.

The Reno Gazette-Journal acknowledged that the warm temperatures and lack of snow might be part of normal climatic variability but suggested the need for a shift from winter sports destinations to mountain sports destinations.

Actually, this began long ago. In the 1980s, snow hills scrapped the name “ski area” in favor of “resort.”

As for mountain towns, some have summer economies as vibrant as those in winter. In California, Truckee is near several ski areas but at the base of none. It has a larger summer draw than in winter, with shoulder seasons growing in length, reports Tony Lashbrook, the town manager.

In Colorado, sales tax revenues for the summer surpass those of winter in Telluride and Crested Butte. In Telluride, reports Greg Clifton, the town manager, June-September is responsible for 5 percent more of sales tax revenues as compared to December-March. “I would say for the past four years, our summer revenues have eclipsed the winter revenues,” he says.

Vail has also become extremely busy in summer, and lodges are frequently full in July and August. But room rates? That’s another matter. Around 65 to 70 percent of Vail’s sales tax revenues arrive during the six-months of winter, i.e. November-April. People pay top dollar to slide down the mountain.

Vail Resorts doesn’t see this fundamentally changing. The company was at the forefront of the ski industry’s efforts to gain broader liberties or provide non-skiing amusements on national forest lands. It is now spending $25 million to provide zip lines and other activities at Vail, Breckenridge, and Heavenly, with other lesser investments planned at other ski areas.

What will Vail get out of this? Speaking with Mountain Town News two years ago, Vail Resorts’ Blaise Carrig said the company does not expect summer to ever rival winter.

“Winter revenues are dramatically greater for our company, and they always will be,” said Carrig, the president of the company’s mountain division. “What we are hoping for is that we can grow our summer business to significantly reduce or eliminate the loss quarters (of summer and fall).”

 Climate Change plan plots path for ski areas

WHISTLER, B.C. – The provincial government in British Columbia recently convened a meeting of ski resort operators to help create a Climate Change Action Plan.

As Whistler Blackcomb’s Arthur De Jong tells Pique, his ski area has been thinking about climate change for a long time. The Peak 2 Peak gondola, a summer attraction as much as it is ski area infrastructure, is part of the strategy, as is new snowmaking equipment.

But if future ski areas are built, they may benefit from the insights in the plan, says David Lynn, chief executive of the Canada West Ski Areas Association.

“I think a lot of what we talked about in the workshop is just making sure that climate change is factored into those decisions, so that, to the extent that we do open new resorts, they’re resorts that are designed to be viable from a climate change perspective 50 years from now as opposed to 50 years ago,” he said.

With many ski areas in British Columbia closing early this year because of lack of snow, the prospect of warmer winters is very much being considered.

“We’re trying to strike a balance of saying ‘yes, global warming is a real phenomenon, it’s strongly supported by science, we need to adapt to it,’ but at the same time, we don’t want to attribute a single data point – i.e. this season – to global warming, per se, because we know there’s an enormous role played by cyclical weather systems such as the El Nino system.”

 New Mexico could have a wet spring

SANTA FE, N.M. – A recent storm dropped ample snowfall on both the Taos and Santa Fe ski areas. Might this auger a wet spring and summer, maybe even the wettest year on record?

That’s the hypothesis of Andrew Church, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “Odds are in our favor,” he tells the Santa Fe New Mexican.

The pattern along the West Coast and in the Pacific Ocean hasn’t been matched since 1941, when New Mexico averaged 26.57 inches for the year, more than twice the normal precipitation.

Thawing temps at Aspen cause slides

ASPEN, Colo. – Four nights this past week, temperatures stayed above freezing in the Aspen area, wrecking the snowpack on the four local ski areas.

Avalanches, brought on by the heavy, water-saturated snowpack, ran down on areas of Aspen Mountain. Crews set off many bombs in an effort to control avalanches, reports the Aspen Daily News.

Jeff Hanle, spokesman for the Aspen Skiing Co., called it an “extraordinary weather pattern.”

Warmest winter on record for the world

BOULDER, Colo. – It snowed hard in Boston this winter, but the big, world-wide picture was of record-breaking heat.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reported that December through February collectively was the warmest on record around the globe.

December 2014 was the warmest on record, and both January and February were the second warmest on record.

NOAA says that record warmth was observed in the western United States, portions of central Siberia, and eastern Mongolia.



About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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One Response to Rainy day attractions at ski areas

  1. paul says:

    Repent ye Colo-fornians! Mother Nature hates the “too cool”. Tee Hee. Ski the Coal states.

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