Strong ski season shapes up
Area ski resorts bounce back after drought, fire, economic

A steady stream of skiers travels through the maze to catch the next ride up Durango Mountain Resort’s sixpack on Monday afternoon. Area resort officials say spring break has officially arrived, and they hope this ski season will finish on a strong note. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.

The area’s ski industry appears to be putting the impacts of drought, wildfire, Sept. 11 and generally low visitation into the past. Ski areas throughout the region are reporting strong skier numbers to date, and with the arrival of spring break this week, they are expecting packed parking lots, loaded chairlifts and happy cash registers.

According to Matt Skinner, Durango Mountain Resort communications director, the fabled annual rush of business began last Monday.

“Texas has arrived,” Skinner said. “I knew when I walked through the parking lot this morning and heard Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring that spring break had started.”

Skinner said that DMR is looking to the coming weeks to round out what has already been a relatively strong season. Specifically, the resort enjoyed large numbers over the Christmas holiday.

“We had a big Christmas,” he said. “We’re on par if not better than last year, which was a record. January was slow, but when the snow came back so did the people.”

Typically the slowest month of the ski season, this January was made worse by the lack of a single snowstorm, both for DMR and all the areas in the region. However, reservations for coming weeks have been strong, and with good snow and skiing, the resort is looking for a strong finish to the 2002-03 season.

A skier hikes back to his car Monday after a day on the hill./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

“Forecasts are good for spring break,” Skinner said. “Reservations have been good, but in a continuing trend, we’re seeing more and more last-minute bookings.”

Asked to characterize DMR’s spring break clientele, Skinner points to a strong Southern push. “We get a lot of Southerners for spring break,” he said. “They choose us because there are no passes and it’s easy to get here; it’s warm; and we’ve got a great hill to learn on.”

Last season pegged out at a total of 251,000 skier days for the resort, below the five-year average of 290,000. Looking to the end of the season, Skinner is cautiously optimistic. “As things are looking right now, I would hope that we would be significantly ahead of last year,” he said.

Aaron Brill, the founder of Silverton Mountain Ski Area, does not have to rely on hope. His numbers are already dramatically ahead of the area’s inaugural year.

“We’re up about 400 percent from last year, which is nice,” Brill said.

Brill owns 350 acres of old mining claims on the 13,487-foot Storm Peak, roughly six miles from Silverton. He also has applied for a permit to allow skiing on 1,300 adjacent acres of public land. Ultimately, Brill would like to see as many as 475 unguided people skiing powder at Silverton Mountain every day. However, the Bureau of Land Management is working through an intensive environmental impact statement, and consequently, Silverton Mountain is presently limited to 40 guided tours per day.

But that number is up from 20 guided tours per day last year, and with more than 18 days of storms in February, this year’s snowpack is dramatically higher as well. These two factors, combined with growing word of mouth on the new area, have made for a strong, guided skiing season, he said.

“We’re booked whether it dumps or not,” Brill said. “By the time the weekend shows up we’re usually full. This season we’ve had to turn away hundreds of people because we’re limited to 40 people a day. But it’s better to be turning people away than not having them show up in the first place.”

Brill is hoping that this will change by next year and that a completed EIS and a favorable review will allow him the right to his 475 skiers a day. However, he is the first to say that the bureaucracy is slow. In fact, he answered these questions from Denver where he had just gotten out of a meeting with the BLM. Having already waited more than two years for BLM approval, Brill is keeping his fingers crossed for next season.

“We’re really pushing to be ready for next year,” he said. “But it’s going to be tight again, especially if we have another fire season.”

Telluride is another resort that recently dealt with the long road of governmental review. However, the toil has paid off financially. With the opening of its Prospect Basin and Gold Hill expansions last year, Telluride was one of the few resorts that reported a strong 2001-02 season.

Warm weather and spring conditions made for great skiing and a festive atmosphere Monday afternoon at DMR. Resort Spokesman Matt Skinner said
this time of year typically draws Southerners, who flock to the area because of
just such weather./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

“Last year we hit 342,000 skier days, which was a 2 percent increase over the year prior,” said Annie Kuhles, communications manager. “We were extremely pleased with that given 9-11, a weak national economy and a really bad snow year.”

Like DMR and Silverton Mountain, Telluride had a bad snow month in January.

“January was certainly soft,” Kuhles said. “A 30-day dry spell didn’t help us.

However, Kuhles is looking to next week, March 17-23, to be the strongest of an already strong season. “Year to date, we are 10 percent up over last year,” she said. “If it continues to snow and our regional markets, including Durango, continue to show up, we should hit our goal which is 380,000 skier days.”

Kuhles said that visiting skiers from Durango and other regional towns and cities have been responsible for a fair amount of Telluride’s success. “This year, Telluride has done especially well in the regional market, largely because of new pass promotions,” she said.

In contrast to these favorable reports, Wolf Creek Ski Area is having a fairly average season. Last year, the resort weathered tough times with a late opening and slow traffic. In fact, the 2001-02 season was so off the mark for Wolf Creek, the area has chosen to draw comparisons with the year prior.

“We’re not even comparing ourselves to last year because we didn’t open until the end of November,” said Roseanne Pitcher, marketing and sales director.

Looking back at the 2000-01 season, Wolf Creek’s numbers are currently down by 3 percent. However, Pitcher said that given the current circumstances, particularly prospects for war in Iraq, the area is pleased.

“That’s pretty good considering the war thing,” she said. “We’re running a little behind two years ago. But we’re pretty happy with that, and I think our guests are really happy.”

Wolf Creek again bucked the experiences of other ski areas with a relatively successful January. The resort was actually 2 percent over 2000-01 for the dry month, largely because it was one of the few areas with good snow, according to Pitcher. And good snow should carry Wolf Creek into the spring, having passed the 100-inch base mark thanks partly to one February storm that dumped 54 inches on the mountain.

Kristin Rust, communications director for Colorado Ski Country USA, said she shares these opinions of the season to date and the season yet to come. She noted that resorts throughout the state and particularly in southwestern Colorado experienced an especially slow January but have bounced back furiously.

“I think we definitely had a slower time from the first of the year through the end of January,” Rust said. “However, we’ve had tremendous snowfall lately and strong skier numbers.”

Rust said that she is looking to the remainder of the season to pull more snow and more skiers courtesy of discounted skiing options. “We’re very much looking forward to spring break,” she said. “Traditionally, March is our snowiest month, and there are an abundance of deals out there.”

Silverton Mountain’s Brill said that in spite of the current balmy, spring-like temperatures the forecast is calling for another pounding as early as next week.

“If you believe the National Weather Service, it’s going to be wetter than normal for the rest of the month,” he said.







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