Skiing’s ‘soul’ debated all over West

WHISTLER, B.C. – For at least 15 years, perhaps longer, there has been a tension within the skiing world. At issue is how much is too much?

Nobody objected to the first lifts, nor to the first rudimentary trail grooming. High-speed quads similarly provoked no complaints when they began arriving in the 1980s. New skis and bindings have been greeted enthusiastically.

Hedonism off the slope was a way of life, too, whether in made-for-skiing towns like Vail or the Aspens and Tellurides, places transformed after prior obsessions with precious minerals. It was all sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

But how much is too much? Critics have often accused ski areas and towns of both artificiality and mass culture, hurling “Disneyland” as a pejorative. Expensive real estate has also provoked resentment, as has the profusion of pampering and privilege. “Skiing has lost its soul,” detractors said.

In Whistler, this debate has centered on the new Peak to Peak gondola, called P2P, between the tops of the Whistler and Blackcomb ski areas. The gondola provides sheer thrills, as at times the cars are several thousand feet above terra firma, but has less utility for skiing.

To many, the gondola crosses the line, causing Whistler to further detach itself from the grunt and sweat at the core of recreational skiing.

Nonsense, says a letter-writer in Whistler’sPique Newsmagazine. Eric Callendar accuses detractors of wrong-headed elitism. In fact, he says, the gondola has been a hit with visitors – and it’s good. Some 67 percent of summer visitors said the gondola contributed to their decisions to visit Whistler.

If only those visitors with great skiing skills and proof of magazine subscriptions were allowed, he added, Whistler would be focusing on 5 percent of the market. And it would be on its way to becoming a ghost town.

Towns seek boost for sagging budgets

BRECKENRIDGE – Voters in at least three ski towns – Aspen, Breckenridge and Jackson – will be approving or rejecting proposals for new or increased lodging taxes. In several cases, the added revenues would supplement sagging town budgets while also boosting efforts to market the communities as tourism destinations.

In Breckenridge, the proposed 1 percent tax increase seems to have broad support from the lodging and restaurant communities, reports theSummit Daily News. The tax would boost the existing $1.68 million fund to $2.2 million. Boosters say the money can help the resort fill lulls, such as that in February, while also promoting the town as a destination, similar to Vail.

One marketing director, Bruce Horii, tells the newspaper that the lodging companies would prefer a different tax, but they believe this one has the best chance of approval.

In Wyoming, Jackson voters are being asked to adopt a tax that would yield $1.5 million for the diminishing town treasury and $2 million for marketing. TheJackson Hole News&Guide reports a community divided, as has been the case repeatedly in the last 16 years since the tax was repealed.

Examining arguments by both opponents and proponents, business analyst Jonathan Schechter finds both sides presenting bogus arguments.

Those supporting the tax have cited the loss of 2,000 jobs – implying that the lodging tax will restore them. However, that argument assumes all jobs are equal. Not true, he points out, as the average tourism job pays 40 percent less than the average construction job.

Opponents miss the same point. They say tourism will increase traffic congestion and otherwise sully the quality of life, Schechter points out. But the tourism economy has stagnated over the last 15 years, while congestion and other problems have worsened.

“My conclusion? For the past 20 years, Teton County’s growth industry has been growth itself, particularly growth in our well-to-do population. This ‘industry’ has treated us very, very well, but it’s also an industry we know very little about,” Schechter says.

“Now’s a good time to ask whether we want to continue hanging our economic hat on growth or instead look to something different. And if we decide the latter, we need to figure out what that something is. If it’s tourism, the lodging tax’s $2 million a year might provide a catalyst toward that new future. Or it might not.”

Vail cultivating destination skiers

VAIL – Vail Resorts this year has put more energy into courting destination skiers, including those from other countries.

Vail always has been blessed – and, depending upon who’s talking, cursed – with a balanced portfolio. It has both day and overnight skiers from Denver 100 miles away, and other communities along Colorado’s Front Range. It also is a destination from more distant travelers, and for decades has had a healthy number of international visitors, 10 percent more or less.

Adam Sutter, marketing director for Vail Mountain, said the resort should have more than 70 percent destination skiers. He tells theVail Daily that the company sees the potential for strong growth among visitors from Canada, Mexico and Australia.

While Vail always has had many wealthy Mexican skiers, it lately has adopted a Spanish-language camp for children. That program aims to keep Mexicans in Vail next spring for an extra week, in conjunction with the Easter holiday.

“We have to do everything we can not to take that business for granted,” Sutner said. “We have a unique footprint in Mexico, and we ought to do everything we can to nurture it.”

Mount of Holy Cross claims another life

MINTURN – The search was called off last week for a 35-year-old man from Chicago who had set out to circumnavigate Mount of the Holy Cross. It was the second apparent fatality among hikers in that area during the last five years, although searches commonly get mounted several times each year.

The most common cause of misfortune is the mountain itself. At 14,005 feet in elevation, it’s among Colorado’s highest, although technically not difficult. But getting to the base involves climbing over a pass, making for a long day. Often, hikers have gotten confused when descending the mountain’s enormous field of boulders and ended up on cliffs, completely baffled by their surroundings and how they got there.

The Chicago hiker intended to work his way around the mountain in a 26-mile route loop across several 11,000- and 12,000-foot passes. It can be done easily enough by fit, healthy backpackers in three days, although he planned five days. He also planned to climb the mountain at the end.

He took neither a beacon, as friends suggested, nor a telephone, although it’s not clear how the latter would have helped. There’s not much cell phone reception in the heart of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area.

Locavore writer stops off in Jackson

JACKSON, Wyo. – Wendell Berry, a writer from Kentucky, was in Jackson Hole recently to talk and read some of his works. He’s first and foremost a writer, and also a teacher. He is broadly known as an essayist because of his deep connections to his native landscape as a part-time farmer.

In this, Berry was either a hold-over from the past or an early adoptee of the new locavore and sustainability trend of recent years.

In advance of his visit to Wyoming, Berry told theJackson Hole News&Guide that the proliferation of farmers’ markets and community-supported farms encourage him.

“I am very much interested in and excited by the awakening among consumers toward fresh, local, healthy food,” he said. “We have been slow to make a connection between health and food and farming. These connections still need to be made.”

But there are challenges, he added. Local food efforts need small-scale local slaughtering and meat-processing facilities, so that people can have locally grown fresh meat as easily as they get locally grown fresh vegetables and fruits.

“It would mean livestock would be better treated,” he added. “They wouldn’t have to be hauled all over the country or mashed into feedlots. They would be healthy. It would just be better for everyone except the food corporations.”

Great Reassessment sweeps the West

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – The Great Recession could also be called the Great Reassessment. The economic shudder has caused mountain towns to revaluate their economic foundations and land-use decisions.

Many mountain town governments have relied greatly, almost exclusively, on sales tax revenues. In the good times, sales tax revenues have been generous to ski towns. But they plummeted from 2008 to 2009 and even now remain stagnant.

In Steamboat Springs, town officials have set out to review how a property tax might be adopted to create a more diverse portfolio.

A blogger recently wrote that the “new normal” poses many questions about the role of town governments. In Steamboat, should it provide recreation facilities? It has done handsomely with Howelsen Hill, a community ski area where some of the world’s best ski jumpers have trained. How about marketing dollars? Less snowplowing?

– Allen Best


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