Making lemonade in Telluride during a winter of very little natural snow
by Allen Best
TELLURIDE, Colo. – It finally snowed during the last week in Telluride, 23 inches in five days, enough to whiten the landscape and cloak some of the grass. At least for a bit, the lab experiment is on hold.
That unwitting experiment being tested at Telluride and a good many other resorts this winter has been whether a ski resort can operate and have great success without snow falling from the heavens?
Snow surveys conducted last week in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado found snow depths 22 percent of normal. To the north in Colorado, they were reported to be 65 percent of normal. Aspen got nine inches over the weekend, hardly worth mentioning in most years. This year it’s the equivalent of a man biting a dog.
In Telluride, the chief executive of the community’s promotional arm reports no grim hits to the community tourism economy—not yet at least. “It’s not all about snow,” says Michael Martelon, of VisitTelluride. “But if we had it, it would make everything else better.”
Martelon is quick to note that Telluride differs from resorts close to cities in that its customers mostly come from long distances. Denver is six hours away, Phoenix eight. Snow is somewhat less important to its visitors than weekend skiing customers on Colorado’s I-70 corridor or those from Utah’s Wasatch Front.
Telluride still has skiing, thanks in part to $15 million in snowmaking investments in the last six years. But for many visitors, skiing is not the end all, be all. There are galleries, restaurants, and even the Jud Wiebe Trail. Located on the south-facing slopes above Telluride, it was still accessible even after the first storm in the recent sequence.
Christmas was strong, and the only repercussion so far has been a softening in bookings for spring break. Lodges require 45-day advance payment, he notes. But for the moment, bookings are pacing to be ahead of last year.
Martelon sees lemonade when others, especially locals accustomed to daily blasts of powder, see lemons. “It might be a blessing in disguise,” he says. “Taking care of the guest becomes the absolute priority, because the snow isn’t doing it for you.”
That said, he suggested checking back in May, to see if his optimism was fully justified.
Elsewhere in the West’s ski towns, Ketchum and Sun Valley reported a lucrative holiday season, better in most cases than the year before. Before, there was powder to ski in the morning. This year, there was little compelling reason to arise, so people stay out at night, explained the Idaho Mountain Express.
At the foot of the ski area, the Ketchum Ranger Station had no measurable snow on the ground on Jan. 1. That’s a first since record-keeping began in 1938, according to the National Weather Service.
But on Wednesday, the Mountain Express proclaimed that the valley “finally looks like winter.”
In Aspen, there was optimism that snowmaking—helped by cold nights—will save the day for the X Games Aspen on Jan. 25-28.
“It really is impressive what the snowmaking and grooming teams have been able to do,” Jeff Hanle, spokesman for the company, told the Aspen Daily News.
In California, an early January snow survey near the entrance to the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski area revealed an average depth of 1.3 inches of snow. The water in that snow is 3 percent of the long-term average for the location, at about 6,640 feet (2,020 meters) in elevation, reported Lake Tahoe News.
Will this change? “There is still a lot of winter left,” Frank Gehrke, who conducts the survey, said. “January, February and into March are frequently productive.”
That said, there are concerns about whether the warming Arctic could in coming decades produce changes in the Pacific Ocean that will more frequently create the high-pressure ridges that have plagued California in recent years. This same high-pressure ridge was blamed for the lack of snow across the West until this past week. See Dec. 7 story in Mountain Town News.