Resorts sure to look at snowmaking
With warm temperatures and scarce snow, winter has been long for snowmaking crews at most Western ski resorts. For many, the work typically ends by Christmas or at least early January.

Not this year. Snowmaking continues even as storms have now arrived.

With the rockiest start to winter in decades, many resorts will probably re-evaluate investments in water, snowguns and other infrastructure, say ski industry officials.

“Snowmaking is something you can never take for granted,” says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association and a former supervisor of snowmaking crews. “It takes constant upgrading, constant improvements, constant effort to improve your water rights. And just when you think you don’t need it, you will need it the most,” he added.

Spanked by two hard-luck winters in 1976-77 and 1980-81, most Colorado destination ski areas invested heavily in snowmaking.

This investment paid off this year for Steamboat. Despite warm nights that idled snowmaking crews in November and December, the ski area had 1,900 acres, or 65 percent, of the terrain open at Christmas. That was among the best in Colorado. Only two ski areas, Durango Mountain Resort and Wolf Creek, both in the southwestern tier, were 100 percent open.

Last summer, Steamboat bought seven new energy-efficient snowmaking guns, which use 30 percent less energy.

Water is another vital component of snowmaking. At Breckenridge, where snowmaking continued as of Jan. 21, the ski area had consumed 900 acre-feet, compared to the normal 700 to 750 acre-feet, according to Glenn Porzak, the resort’s water lawyer.

Not all resorts have substantial snowmaking, however. Particularly the ski areas along the crest of California’s Sierra Nevada. which suffered almost no natural snow and just thin ribbons of man-made.

“I don’t think I have ever been in a mountain area in the latter of part of January where there was so little snow,” said Porzak after a ski industry meeting at Squaw Valley. “It was brutal.”

Porzak has helped ski areas in Western states secure water rights for snowmaking since the 1970s. After every significant drought, ski areas have invested heavily in additional snowmaking capabilities. The more well-heeled have invested even when no drought is imminent.

This year, Porzak expects ski areas to engage in an intense re-evaluation of water needs and snowmaking infrastructure. The need is most obvious in

Lake Tahoe, where fresh snow is often measured by the foot, not the inch.

This year, however, Squaw had just two runs covered with snow as of Jan. 19, the day before natural snow started arriving. Heavenly and Northstar both have sophisticated snowmaking systems, which put them in better stead for the tough early season this winter, says NSAA’s Berry.

Economy in the trash, so to speak
EAGLE – For decades, sewage treatment managers in Vail-Beaver Creek have estimated peak-season populations with what has sometimes been called the “flush factor.” Something of a comparable metric, trash dumped at the Eagle County Landfill is now being used to chart the economy.

The Eagle Valley Enterprise reports that tonnage of construction debris has dropped 68 percent since 2007. Compacted trash delivered by trucks servicing homes and businesses dropped 23 percent.

Ken Whitehead, director of Eagle County Solid Waste and Recycling, believes that the drop in compacted trash had indicated an exodus of people from the valley. Also, with the recession, people were buying less. He says 30 percent of what ends up in the landfill comes from packaging of goods.

“During a recession, people are less likely to buy a television. And that means there will be less packaging to be recycled or go into the landfill.”

John Lewis, finance director for Eagle County, told the newspaper that trash tells the story of the economy more rapidly than other economic indicators.
“We don’t get unemployment or sales tax numbers for a month and a half,” said Lewis. “If you want to know how the economy is really doing, you should check out your neighbors’ trash.”

And what does the most recent trash talk say about the economy? Whitehead, the landfill boss, says the economy overall seems to be leveling off. Construction and demolition waste, however, continue to decline. “It hasn’t flattened out yet,” he says.

Hibernating bear found at foot of tree
LAKE LOUISE, Alberta – Imagine what it would be like to be skiing along in the backcountry when you discover a sleepy black bear a ski pole away.

That’s what happened to Karsten Heuer, who has no small credentials as an outdoor adventurer. In 1998-99, he trekked from Yellowstone to the Yukon to bring attention to the needs for wildlife corridors and preserves. In 2003, he followed the Porcupine caribou herd from its Yukon winter range to the herd’s calving grounds in Alaska, which are endangered by proposed oil drilling, and then back.

While skiing about 20 kilometres north of Lake Louise, he came across the black bear curled up like a dog underneath a spruce tree. The bear seemed drowsy, but gave every appearance of not liking the disturbance.

“He put his head down as if to ignore us, then lifted it again,” Heuer told the Rocky Mountain Outlook. “We decided to leave for the bear’s sake and for our sake.”

Mike Gibeau, a bear expert based in Canmore, told the newspapers that it’s uncommon, but not unheard of, for bears to simply curl up under trees to hibernate.

“Sometimes there’s a bit of an overhang, sometimes they tuck underneath the roots, so it’s not completely unusual to have an open den,” he said.

Whistler breaks hotel occupancy record
WHISTLER, B.C. – Blessed by abundant snow, Whistler had a blockbuster Christmas season.

Room nights were up 12 percent from the previous winter, which surpassed the previous record, set in 2007, by 7 percent. January has potential to be among the strongest Januaries ever.

Pique Newsmagazine attributes the success not only to the snowfall, but also to advertising campaigns conducted in the early season. The campaigns were directed at the long-haul markets, meaning those outside of the Vancouver area.

Since Christmas, Whistler has stepped up its advertising even more in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto and Seattle.

The irony is that despite breaking records, room rates stayed flat or even dipped during December. Some hoteliers are saying that this simply must change. But Stuart Remple, the senior vice president of marketing and sales for Whistler Blackcomb, the ski area, warns against impatience.

“We’re not just competing with other ski resorts. People have choices. They can go to Mexico, if it’s on sale. Or they can go to Hawaii, if it’s on sale. They can go to Las Vegas, if it’s on sale.

“We just have to be really careful that we don’t get too carried away as a resort and all of a sudden jack up our rates.”

Ski resorts see deadly week
It was a deadly week at ski areas in Colorado, with avalanche deaths both in and out of bounds. At Snowmass, there was an avalanche death in a gully outside the ski area boundary, in what was described as a very short but steep slope. At Winter Park, a man was killed by a small avalanche in a gladed area within the ski area. And on Vail Mountain, a 13-year-old boy was killed by an avalanche in what Vail Resorts specified was a closed area, although the boy did not duck ropes to get there. Instead, he and friends side-stepped up to get their shot. Whether the area was clearly marked as closed has not been firmed up.

At Aspen Highlands, death came in other circumstances. A local man was snowboarding on a double-black-diamond run, in thick trees. The victim struck a tree and then another, and was impaled with a branch in his chest.
In the backcountry north of Steamboat, a snowmobiler died after an avalanche.

– Allen Best