June 1, 2012

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Dreaming of a White Winter

Local Resorts Made the Best of a Challenging Season

Gaylen Webb

June 1, 2012

As soft, fresh powder blanketed the Utah mountains on April 15, most of the state’s 14 ski resorts were enjoying a strong finish to a relatively weak ski season. Snowbasin, Wolf Mountain, Beaver Mountain and Eagle Point had already closed. Only Alta, Brighton and Snowbird would remain open past their traditional closing dates. Snowbird—the bastion for late spring skiing—would continue its season into May.

Mother Nature was indeed fickle this year. After dumping a record 783 inches on Snowbird in the 2010-2011 season—allowing the resort to stay open through July 4—she only delivered 369 inches of the famous Utah powder to Snowbird and 372 inches to Alta this season. Park City Mountain Resort received only 211 inches at its summit, compared to 411 inches the previous season.

Indeed, from north to south, Utah’s resorts suffered equally from less-than-stellar snowfall, which made for a unique season. Nonetheless, as Ski Utah Director of Communications Jessica Kunzer points out, “Even an average ski season in Utah compares favorably with a great season nearly anywhere else.”

A “No Snow” Message
Unfortunately, the relatively dry winter encouraged a “no snow” message that made the season challenging for resorts. “We still had bookings, but they were booking in shorter time frames—a week out or 10 days out—instead of two months out,” says Jenni Smith, president and general manager of Park City Mountain Resort. “But overall, we ended the season just a little shy of 4 percent down, so we were happy about that, especially compared to other regions of the country that suffered significantly more than that.”

Alta Ski Area also experienced a shorter booking window due to the weather conditions, according to Connie Marshall, director of marketing and public relations. In some instances, the no-snow message appeared to affect locals more than out-of-state enthusiasts. For local skiers and snowboarders, the odd weather patterns that interspersed snow and cold weather with unseasonably warm, dry spells presented a unique choice: to ski or golf.

“When it is so warm in the valley, the locals forget to take their skis out,” says Kunzer. “They were able to golf down in the valley in February.”

For most of the season, the local powder snobs were just that: snobby. They were waiting for the big storms, but only a few materialized. Marshall says many locals thought they would have to bring their rock skis and therefore shied away. In reality, rock skis were unnecessary, as nearly all of the resorts had plenty of good snow—just not as much as the previous season.

Could a dearth of snow on the ground in the valley have a psychological effect on local skiers? One can only guess, but Marshall says some locals actually waited until February or March before they picked up their Alta season passes, perhaps illustrating the lack of enthusiasm among locals for fewer powder days.

If All Else Fails
Less snow certainly made for a unique year—but it is not true that the resorts were dry. In fact, many of the resorts say skiing conditions were great due to the snowmaking equipment they have on standby. The snowguns saw heavy use and perhaps saved the seasons at a few of the resorts this year.

“It definitely got us through the end of the season. With the warm temperatures that we had in March and April, snowmaking is what really saved our season,” says Smith. Snowmakers at her resort pumped about 43 percent more snow this season than last.

At Brian Head, man-made snow allowed the resort to open on time and extend its closing date by a week. Deer Valley Resort began making snow aggressively a month before its Dec. 3 opening. At Canyons Resort, Managing Director Mike Goar says the investment in snowmaking equipment and a 20-million gallon reservoir allowed the resort to start the season with much of the mountain open—from 9,100 feet to the resort village at 6,800 feet. He adds that the overwhelming majority of Canyons skiers and snowboarders enjoyed great conditions all season long.

Man-made powder actually carried most of the resorts until the snow started flying in February. Interestingly, man-made snow actually provides a more durable base for the resorts than the natural stuff and allows for more consistent grooming on high-traffic runs throughout the ski season.

A Slow Start
Coming off a strong 2010-2011 season that was second best for skier days, the resorts had high expectations for 2011-2012. “We were hoping this would be another recovery year,” says Marshall. “Basically, everyone was disappointed by the slow start.”

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