Mountain Town News: A quirky winter in San Juans of just-in-time snowstorms (column)
March 24, 2018
SOUTH FORK, Colo. – It was snowing this past week at Wolf Creek, the ski area that can get some of Colorado's heaviest snows. This year has not been among them.
"This year it has been just quirky," said chief executive and general manager Davey Pitcher last Friday, as snow fell lightly. "It snows a little, then it dries up again."
The Pitcher family has owned the ski area since 1976-77, enough time to see both good and bad. That first year was among the worst. It got bitterly cold, but there was no snow at all until Jan. 22. That year, he says, produced the realization among Colorado ski areas that it was time to stop making fun of eastern ski areas and their snowmaking equipment and invest in snow guns themselves. The 1980-81 winter was a sharp reminder.
But the 1998-99 winter burns in Pitcher's memory. "We only received 13 inches until Jan. 1. In some ways, it was worse even than this year. But then it started snowing, and we ended up with 300 inches that winter," he says.
Storms have been so rare this winter they have been named by Wolf Creek staffers. One was called the Just-in-Time Storm, another the Thank-Goodness Storm, and then the OK Storm just before the Martin Luther King weekend.
Wolf Creek didn't invest in snowmaking until the late 1990s, and even now only five acres at the base can be covered. Before Christmas, crews resorted to 35-gallon trash cans, scooping up 7,000 loads of snow to dump onto the ski runs.
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Also notable about this winter's weather has been the warmth. The first snows arrived heavy with water, providing a base across the ski area much like manufactured snow. Then the temperature warmed. "There's an awful lot of evaporation and sublimation," he says.
Looking to a hillside across the highway from his ski area, Pitcher observed that it was bare. Most years it's a favorite backcountry ski slope.
Will California Zephyr end its
journey through ski country?
TRUCKEE, Calif. – People don't travel by train so much anymore. We fly or, perhaps, drive long distances on these big, wide highways. But gone are the days when Sun Valley was created by Averill Harriman as a way to produce more passengers on his Union Pacific trains.
But a small number of people still do prefer trains, and some of them go to ski areas. Whether they will be able to continue to do so is in question. The Trump administration wants to cut Amtrak funding nearly in a half, from $1.4 billion to $738 million. The Trump administration make the argument — as have other officials in other Republican administrations in the past — that towns, cities and states should shoulder more of the financial burden of keeping routes in service.
In question are not the short-haul Amtrak routes, most of which are located in the heavily populated Northeast, such as between Washington and Boston. The target is on four long-haul routes, including the California Zephyr.
The Zephyr leaves Chicago in the evening and arrives in Denver at breakfast, then rising into the Rockies, emerging from the Moffat Tunnel within a football field of the ski slopes of Winter Park. Then it's on to Granby, once the self-proclaimed Dude Ranch Capital of Colorado and still a portal to Rocky Mountain National Park, and then down the Colorado River to Glenwood Springs, Aspen just 40 miles away.
Beyond lies Salt Lake City, just 30 miles from Park City and then the Sierra Nevada. At Truckee, just a few miles from Northstar, Squaw Valley and other ski areas, the depot gets 14,000 passenger arrivals and departures annually. That works out to about 20 per day each way, trains both east and west. The Truckee council agreed to file a letter of support for continued funding for the California Zephyr, reports the Truckee Sun.
Defenders of Amtrak's long-haul routes say that critics have manipulated financial numbers to make the short-haul routes between Washington D.C. and Boston look more profitable than they really are and the long-haul routes less so. They also point out that all forms of transportation in the United States are subsidized.
If only the crowds came in
April and not November
TELLURIDE, Colo. – Telluride plans to open at Thanksgiving again next winter after all. The Daily Planet reports that the ski company had announced an opening on Dec. 1.
Given how often there's just not very good snow for Thanksgiving, a later date makes sense. But Matthew Windt, spokesman for the ski area, tells the Planet that Telluride Lodging Association was particularly persuasive in advocating for the early opening. The earlier opening adds nine days of operations.
The flip side of opening early and not having snow is then having to delay opening. That happened this winter.
Regardless of when Telluride opens, the lifts will close the first Sunday in April, says Bill Jensen, the chief executive of Telluride Ski & Golf. It's almost never for lack of snow. Instead, destination skiers become rare then, and Telluride's isolation from major cities precludes the diehards such as those that keep places like Arapahoe Basin operating into T-shirt season.
Labor professor evaluates
potential for ski area union
WHISTLER, B.C. – A unionization effort by a small group of ski instructors at Whistler Blackcomb is underway. But a professor of labour economics and relations tells Pique that he sees a major challenge to the instructors.
"It's a tough labour force to unionize because many of them are only here for short periods of time," said Craig Riddell, who teaches at the University of British Columbia.
Pique says 3,700 of the ski hill workers are employed this winter for the first time or are working here on a seasonal basis.
Under labor laws in British Columbia, union organizers must get support from at least 50 percent of non-managerial workers in order for the union to go forward.
Riddell went on to explain that a union is like an investment. Workers willing to invest the time and effort at the beginning may have to go on strike to get the initial contract. Presumably it pays off in the future. "But if you're only involved in that activity for a year or two, that may not be worth it."
Pique says it's unclear just how much appetite there is for a union at Whistler Blackcomb. However, adds the newspaper, employees generally hold a dim view of Vail Resorts, the company that purchased the ski resort for $1.4 billion in 2016.
As basis for this claim, the newspaper cited an internal e-mail to the staff of the ski area that reported an employee engagement survey found results were lower than in the previous three years. However, other results in 2002, were significantly lower.
Giving Latino children a shot
at some future Olympic glory?
JACKSON, Wyo. – Two people from Jackson Hole, both of them Anglos, as are most skiers in North America, competed in this year's Olympics. But might some future Olympian from Jackson Hole be Latino?
That's the question provoked by a story in the Jackson Hole News & Guide, which tells of a program sponsored by the Coombs Foundation to bring local Latinos into the sport.
The nonprofit founded by Emily Coombs honors her late husband, Doug Coombs, a pioneer of free-skiing who died in a couloir in France. Returning to Wyoming, Emily and their son, David, integrated into the Jackson community.
But Emily noticed that her son's classmates rarely participated in the activities her son participated in outside of school. They were mostly low-income Latinos, the children of people who had immigrated to work in service jobs.
To that end, she created a learn-to-ski program in 2012-2013. It began with seven participants, quadrupled to 28 by the end of the first winter, but today has 200 kids, close to 95 percent of them Latino.
The News & Guide says that Jackson Hole is not unique in its separation of Latino and white populations. "Many ski communities display the same divide between the group of people who do many of the jobs to make resort towns run and those who are the main economic drivers of the ski industry," writes Tom Hallberg.
To help raise funds for the expanding program, those with philanthropic capabilities were given the opportunity to ski at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort with ski legends Kit DesLauriers, Jess McMillan and Tommy Moe, among others.
Deep pockets for Alterra's ski
area upgrades in next 5 years
WINTER PARK, Colo. – The new Alterra Mountain Co. clearly intends to scrap hard with Vail Resorts for market share.
The company was founded last year by the Crown family, owners of the Aspen Skiing Co., and KSL Capital Partners, a company led by former executives of Vail. They now have 12 mountain destinations, near parity with Vail Resorts, and with a similarly impressive diversity from California to New England and Canada.
The company's Ikon Pass looks to be an attractive option to Vail's Epic Pass, both in prices and in offerings. And now the owners have pulled out their wallet for upgrades, $555 million during the next five years. The improvements begin with $130 million in spending this coming year.
Leading the list of upgrades will be a new gondola at Winter Park, the resort located about 70 minutes west of Denver. It will also get snowmaking, replacing the system that has not been substantially replaced since the 1970s. Winter Park's $28.2 million will be the largest single-year investment in the history of the resort.
Other investments will be at Mammoth. The ski area located six hours from the population giant of Los Angeles will get attractions that might lure more visitors during summer.
Until purchased by Alterra last year, Mammoth had been led by Rusty Gregory, who rose from lift op through the ranks under Mammoth founder to Dave McCoy to take the reins. Now, he's in Denver, home to Alterra and just 20 minutes from Vail Resorts headquarters. KSL Capital Partners is also headquartered in Denver.
"This is a very well-capitalized company with private investors," Gregory told The Denver Post.
"We are an operating company, so it's really recurring earnings we are looking for. Those recurring earnings eventually at some level go back to share-holders, but if you look at the Crown family's history, they buy and hold assets for a long, long time."
Lester Crown, the patriarch of the family, bought Aspen Skiing Co. in 1985. The family also has ownership stake in General Dynamics, Sara Lee, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. The latter, says the Post, is leading the consortium of banks handling Alterra's roughly $1.2 billion in debt.
Gregory singled out expansion of a restaurant at the Steamboat base area, where Alterra will direct a "significant amount of money" in coming years "to fix the mess that it's become."
Electric bus making test runs
in the Vail community
VAIL, Colo. – A 40-foot electric bus is making the rounds of Vail this week, part of a demonstration project. More demonstration buses will follow through the year as the town prepares to invest in electric buses beginning in 2020.
Last year, the Town of Vail received $525,287 from the federal government through the Low or No Emission grant program. Vail also hopes to get additional money from the Volkswagen diesel emissions settlement.
The Roaring Fork Transit Authority, which serves the Aspen-Glenwood Springs area, and Boulder also received federal grants for electric buses.
The bus demonstration, along with others in the coming year, will allow the town to learn about any issues with the deployment of battery-electric buses in the local environment and collect performance data from on-route conditions.
Sharp differences of opinion
about treatment of bears
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – The Sacramento Bee tells the story of an 82-year-old resident of a neighborhood along the shores of Lake Tahoe where bears had been breaking in, slowed only slightly by shuttered windows and locked doors, to invade pantries and refrigerators.
In one of those vacation homes, a security camera had captured the ransacking. A bear had turned on the stovetop as it brushed against it. In another house, a bear had broken a gas line.
Then, one morning in November, the 82-year-old man was awakened at 2 a.m. by the sound of a motion-activated alarm he'd set on his kitchen counter. Three cubs had pushed through a window, and the sow's head was poking in behind.
In that case, the bears fled when the man raised a ruckus. No so in another home, where the resident's belly was slashed by a confronted bear. He did recover.
Bears have been killed by homeowners and state wildlife authorities. But the fundamental story is that California wildlife officials have found their hands tied in reacting to home-invading bears. In Nevada, along the east side of Lake Tahoe, there's less restraint.
The Bee says that any state-sanctioned bear killing, even of bears that have been habitual invaders of locked or occupied homes, infuriates Tahoe's well-funded and well-organized group of bear advocates. Those advocates, says the Bee, defend the animals with a righteous, evangelical zeal. For example, people who have had bears killed have had their homes smeared in red-blood paint.
Just about everybody agrees that moving errant bears out of the area usually doesn't solve the problems, notes the Bee. "Biologists in both California and neighboring Nevada have grown reluctant to trap bears and haul them somewhere else, saying animals conditioned to crave people food will just become some other community's problem. Bears released into faraway wilderness areas also have been known to make weeks-long journeys to get back to Tahoe and the human food they crave."
Similarly, while bears have been chased by dogs and shot with rubber bullets, these techniques work best with young bears, not their elders, who have been eating human food for years.
The case for bears has been made most forcefully by Ann Bryant, director of the non-profit Bear League. She was featured in a 2012 miniseries on the TV channel Animal Planet called "Blonde vs. Bear." She and followers are accused of harassment.
In one of those cases, a Nevada state wildlife biologist sued Bryant and other bear advocates, alleging they damaged his reputation and libeled him in a years-long harassment campaign on social media accounts.
The activists, in turn, accuse the biologist of accepting bribes from hunters to trap and move the animals into zones recently opened to hunting. In 2013, Bryant called the biologist the "ultimate bear serial killer."
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