Mountain Town News: Creating winter economies based on rain instead of snow |

Mountain Town News: Creating winter economies based on rain instead of snow

Allen Best

Chicago remains covered by snow, but ski areas 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 Mount 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.

Despite record snow in Boston this year, the big, world-wide picture was one of record-breaking heat.

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 six non-skiing months surpass those of winter in Telluride and Crested Butte.

Vail has also become extremely busy in summer, and lodges are frequently full in July and August. But room rates? That’s another matter. About 70 percent of Vail’s sales tax revenues arrive during the six-months of winter. 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).”



BOULDER — 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.



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.”



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.



ASPEN — 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.”



BANFF, Alberta — GoPro video cameras have been used for many applications, but this one may be new. As part of a $1 million study, the tiny cameras have been affixed to the front of Canadian Pacific locomotives chugging through the Canadian Rockies.

Trains have been the No.1 cause of death of grizzly bears in Banff and Yoho national parks. Especially during spring and fall, the bears gravitate toward the railroad tracks. At least in some cases, they find corn spilled from passing trains. But they also find vegetation to browse.

Researchers tell the Rocky Mountain Outlook that the bears respond to trains in several ways. Some bears scamper as soon as they see trains approaching, while others leave the tracks at the last moment. Still others, when startled by the trains, begin to flee along the tracks, as if they could outrun the trains.

The same study had allowed researchers to create a much more detailed census of Banff’s 60 to 65 bears, including family trees. Bear 122 comes in for special attention, as the boar has fathered at least five young bruins.

Bear 122 is identified as Banff’s badass bear, at least in part because he killed and ate a black bear last year. He seems to have a range in excess of 965 square miles. This compares with the average home range for male grizzles in that part of Canada of roughly 400 to 800 square miles. Females have ranges of about 80 to 200 square miles.



PARK CITY, Utah — Lab tests have confirmed that two people overdosed on the drug DGH at a nightclub in Park City during the winter.

The two cases were part of a string of a least five episodes of a similar nature at Park City’s largest nightclub, reports the Park Record.

Lt. Darwin Little of the Park City Police Department said police fear a fatality if use of DHB, also called the date-rape drug, continues.



SUN VALLEY, Idaho — A federal agency has found two construction firms in violation of safety guidelines in the case of a wall that collapsed, killing one employee and injuring five more.

The 11-foot-high fire safety wall fell last November because of an improperly positioned and maintained wall brace, concluded the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Idaho Mountain Express reports that the two firms agreed to undergo a 10-hour construction safety class in order to develop a safety and health program that meets OSHA guidelines. The two firms were fined respectively $6,800 and $5,800.



WINTER PARK, Colo. — Will the past become the future? From 1940 to 2009, almost without interruption, special trains departed Denver’s Union Station every Saturday and Sunday morning, depositing skiers an hour and a half later at the foot of the slopes of Winter Park.

A generation or two of skiers from Denver learned to ski at Winter Park before Interstate 70 opened and soon after Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and a host of other ski areas commenced business.

But while the ski trains remained popular, they were ended in 2009 by Philip Anschutz, the owner, because of the cost of insurance.

Now, following a special resumption of train service in mid-March that drew 900 riders for the weekend trips, hope remains in Winter Park that the service can become permanent once again.

What’s new is that Amtrak has gotten involved. For the trial run in March, Amtrak delivered trains from its storage yard in Chicago. Amtrak works closely with Union Pacific, which runs 18 to 24 freight trains over the tracks each day.

Steve Hurlbert, spokesman for Winter Park Resort, says discussion will begin in April about permanent resumption. Amtrak, he says, “is as enthusiastic about this as we are.”

Winter Park makes the argument that the ski trains are good for Colorado altogether. The Colorado Department of Transportation estimated that the trains would draw enough passengers to reduce 450 to 500 cars on heavily congested Interstate 70 during peak traffic flows.

With the ski trains, snow riders can arrive at Winter Park just 60 paces from the train to the Gemini lift.

But everything depends upon the approval by UP. If UP agrees, though, Hurlbert describes a future for Denver-area skiers that would be the envy of many

Because of the proliferating network of light and commuter rail in metropolitan Denver, it could soon be possible for snow riders to board their neighborhood train to Union Station, and from there transfer to the ski trains to Winter Park. No sitting in traffic on I-70.



KAMLOOPS, B.C. — Electronic variable speed-limit signs will soon be erected along several Canadian highways, including the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler and the Coquihalla Highway west of Revelstoke, reports Kamloops This Week.

The speed limit on the latter is 120 kilometers per hour, or about 75 mph, which works for summer, most of the time, but probably is far too fast when the snow is falling furiously. “In a matter of minutes, we’ll be able to dial that speed limit down,” explains Todd Stone, the provincial transportation minister.

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