Mountain Town News: A dry February, but now the fun will start |

Mountain Town News: A dry February, but now the fun will start

Avy dog, Rio, catches a ride to the top of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area on Friday morning.
Bill Linfield / special to the Daily |

ASPEN, Colo. – Winter got off to a good start high in the Rocky Mountains, but mid-winter was sluggish. Ketchum, for example, got just one inch of snow in February.

Meteorologists last autumn had warned to expect just this sort of El Niño pattern. They also said to expect lots of moisture beginning in March and continuing until May.

That’s still the prediction of Aspen-based Ryan Boudreau and his partner, Cory Gates, who own a micro-forecasting service called Aspen Weather. They told The Aspen Times they expect another 125 to 130 inches of snowfall on local ski slopes through the third week of April. The precedent Boudreau recalls is 1983, another El Niño year.

That 1982-83 winter had also started strong, then turned ho-hum after Christmas. As the ski slopes began closing, the storms arrived one after another in Winter Park and other mountain towns. There was so much spring snow that Vail reopened for Memorial Day Weekend in late May.

Then it got hot in June — and the snow vanished. Rivers roared. Downstream in the desert of Utah, managers of Glen Canyon Dam began to worry. Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the United States, can hold nearly one and a half times the annual, average flow of the Colorado River.

This was not a normal year, though. Spillways were opened, but the volume was greater than ever experienced. The whole dam began to shake violently. Plywood was installed atop the dam, so that the reservoir could hold more water. It looked to be a lost cause, but then in mid-July the volume of inflow into Lake Powell began to slow.

A relatively new and highly-regarded book called “The Emerald Mile” tells the story of that calamitous summer and a thrilling raft ride on the crest of those flood waters through the Grand Canyon.

Can we expect that again? Not likely, as Lake Powell was only 46 percent full as of Sunday, so there’s lots of room. Too, El Niño appears to be weakening, says Nolan Doesken, the Colorado state climatologist. Still, it is likely to be a cold, wet spring, which is “always a boon for (water) supplies and sometimes an indicator of flood potential.”

Jackson Hole reframes sidecountry warnings

JACKSON, Wyo. – Sidecountry has become a common term to describe the terrain located adjacent to ski areas. You can use the lifts to get your vertical, then slip through a backcountry gate to catch powder long after the slopes have been skied off.

But the sidecountry slopes adjacent to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort are not the same as those inside the ski area. Two people died after going through those backcountry gates in January, the Jackson Hole News&Guide explains, while a trio of snowboarders fell hundreds of feet over a cliff, although they survived.

The ski area operator and the local search and rescue team have teamed up to see if they can more effectively communicate the dangers that lie in the canyons, cliffs and other avalanche-prone slopes. The News&Guide explains that photos of the terrain will be posted at two of the six gates.

Skull-and-crossbones symbols already exist to warn the community of the danger, but they don’t always work, explained Jon Bishop, the resort’s risk manager. “They think the warnings don’t mean what the warnings say. Or they go out once and have a good experience.”

During the last two ski seasons, incidents in one sidecountry area, called Rock Springs, have accounted for a quarter of all winter rescue calls in Teton County.

Writing in the same issue of the News&Guide, backcountry columnist Molly Absolon — whose husband was killed in a climbing accident — continues to puzzle over how the human brain assesses risk. She focuses especially on the brains of people in their early 20s.

“It’s hard for kids who grew up in Jackson Hole not to be aware of avalanches. With Sunday’s avalanche fatality outside Grand Targhee Resort, the Tetons have seen 16 deaths from avalanches in the last four years. That’s a lot of death.”

Still, a local high school science instructor who teaches an avalanche unit reports not all of his students do understand the risks. Instruction starts in a middle school after-school club. When one of the instructors, a member of the Jackson Hole Ski Patrol, asked the kids if they had ever skied past the resort’s gates, the majority said they had.

Collapsed cornice, and now his story is all over

DRIGGS, Idaho – Don’t tempt your fate by stepping on a cornice. You might end up like the 30-year-old man at Grand Targhee.

The Jackson News&Guide reports that the broken cornice sent the man falling down a slope, which in turn triggered an avalanche that swept him over a steep cliff. He was buried under two feet of snow and died.

The paper says the man, an immigrant from Mexico, was well liked in the Jackson Hole community and left a wife and two children.

A similar incident a year ago banged up a 28-year-old visitor from Australia but he survived.

A seven-year itch for high-end real estate?

ASPEN, Colo. – After six straight years of upward momentum, is Aspen’s real estate market ready to slip-slide downward? In the last 40 years, six years has been the longest period before there’s a market correction, said Randy Gold at a recent meeting of the Aspen Board of Realtors that was covered by The Aspen Times.

Gold, a partner in the Aspen Appraisal Group, had issued the same cautionary note about the six-year cycle last year, but this year said he felt more certain about an impending downhill slide.

January and February numbers have been sliding compared to those of 2015. At more than $2 billion in volume, it was the biggest year in the Aspen area since 2005. “I think 2015 was the market peak and we’re moving into the next phase of the down market,” he said.

Mountain coasters to debut at Vail, Heavenly

BROOMFIELD, Colo. – Five years after the U.S. Congress passed a law allowing expanded year-round use of ski areas on federal lands, Vail Resorts will debut canopy tours, alpine coasters and other amusements on Vail Mountain and at Heavenly Mountain Resorts beginning in June.

Vail Resorts emphasizes the marriage of learning and play in its new venues, which it is branding under the name Epic Discovery.

“Epic Discovery offers families the opportunity to learn through play together in the national forest,” said Chris Jarnot, chief operating office of Vail Mountain. “For kids, it will be the ultimate playground in an alpine setting.”

At Vail, adventurers will be able to partake of a guided tour called the Game Creek Canopy Tour. It will have an array of zip lines and aerial bridges as high as 300 feet above the valley floor. In a press release, Vail explains that participants will learn about the mountain environment from interpretive guides while working their way through the course.

Also planned is an alpine coaster, trademarked by Vail as a Forest Flyer. The coaster allows riders to control their speed on the elevated track.

Vail Mountain will also have an expanded trail system, focused on mountain flora and fauna, created in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, the Forest Service, and a local nonprofit called Walking Mountains Science Center.

In 2017, Breckenridge will get its own set of summer amusements.

Previously, authority to engage in overtly commercial activities was unclear. In 1986, Congress passed a law governing ski area permits, but spoke only of snow sports. As such, local federal forest managers were inclined to refuse expanded commercial activities in summer.

A law passed in 2011, however, specifically identifying zip lines, mountain bike terrain parks, Frisbee golf courses and rope courses as appropriate for summer use. It specifically excludes tennis courts, water slides, swimming pools, golf courses and amusement parks. It made no mention of mountain coasters, however.

Park City and Whitefish, with private land at their disposal, already have an array of such activities. Vail Mountain, during the 1990s, also created modest activities on private land located at the top of its gondola.

Summer has always been a money-losing time for most, if not all, ski areas. Vail Resorts doesn’t expect these new activities to replace skiing.

“Winter revenues are dramatically greater for our company, and they always will be,” declares Blaise Carrig, the president of the company’s mountain division, who was quoted by Ski Area Management three years ago.

Carrig said the summer activities will produce some cash while allowing the company to offer more year-round jobs.

“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),” says Carrig.

Ski instructor union remains a possibility

AVON, Colo. – The effort to unionize ski instructors at Beaver Creek has taken an important step forward, the Vail Daily reports. The Communication Workers of America has filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a representation election. If more than 30 percent of eligible instructors sign the petition, an election can be held.

The Vail Daily reports an email from organizers citing complaints about “ever-shifting work rules and lack of transparency on issues — including wages, work assignments, workman’s comp, training remuneration and access to child care” making it challenging for Beaver Creek’s instructors to provide the highest level of service to Beaver Creek visitors.

The head of Beaver Creek’s ski school disagrees, saying that “we don’t believe a union supports the values that this team exudes.”

Why pikas can hang on for a while longer

BANFF, Alberta – Might the future among the high mountains of Alberta be just a little less precarious for those noisy little rodents called picas? That’s the latest evidence, according to speakers at a recent program in the Bow Valley covered by the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

Wildlife biologist Chris Shank said pikas are vulnerable, but climate change seems unlikely to place them at risk of extirpation in Alberta by the end of the 21st century. But then again, if we can’t figure out how to curtail planetary emissions of greenhouse gases, the pikas might have a sorry story ahead.

In the United States, some research has indicated the pika is suffering because global warming has brought higher temperatures to their western mountain homes. Pikas have already disappeared from more than one-third of their previously known habitat in Oregon and Nevada.

A different view came from David Hik, a biologist in the department of biological sciences at the University of Alberta. He said emerging research shows pikas seem adaptable to different elevations, diets and environmental conditions.

“My feeling is they are pretty resilient and, within the range of variation we expect in the next century, they’ll probably be fine and be able to move upslope,” said Hik.

“They can actually cope with pretty wide ranging conditions and variability. They’ve been around for a long time, through multiple glacial cycles, and yet are fairly widely distributed.”

Hik said temperature is a good index to measure future vulnerability of pikas in the long-term, but said what seems to cause declines in populations in the short-term is the absence of winter snow, compounded by increasing rain-on-snow events.

Pot outsells hootch in Aspen some months

ASPEN, Colo. – You think cannabis isn’t a big thing in Aspen? Consider this. Last year, according to city records, the seven stores that sold marijuana for either medical or recreational purposes racked up $8.3 million in sales.

For three months of the year — March, July and December — cannabis revenues were greater than for beer and liquor stores. However, that excludes liquor sales at bars and restaurants. By the same measure, cannabis sales lagged that of beer and liquor for the year, but not by much, reports The Aspen Times, after studying figures released by city officials.

For the city, sales produced $200,000 in tax revenues last year.

This compares with $135 million in tax revenues and fees across Colorado levied against $1 billion in sales.

But what can be said about the effect of marijuana legalization on Aspen? The Times talked with Bill Linn, the city’s assistant police chief. If anything, he said, legalization has lightened the load of police officers, who no longer feel compelled to seize the substance and then complete the paperwork.

Too, as compared to alcohol, it has a milder impact on civic order. “Marijuana doesn’t exactly whip people into a frenzy to act out or go to a bar and pick a fight,” he said.

However, the jury is still out, at least in the mind of police. “I think 10 years is a good time to look back and make that determination,” Linn said. “Now, it’s working out fine.”

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