In the Rocky Mountains, mountain resorts are gearing up for this weekend’s forecasted snowfall, something welcomed after a rough start to the season. A slow start to snowfall and poor early season weather have forced many to slash the number of lift tickets sold. Calfornian is offering a value-oriented season pass that gives off the impression of saving a few bucks when it in fact has a higher price tag ($960) than last year’s base rate ($780). But for ski resort operators, the drop in sales of season passes has been tough to swallow.
It’s the early February snow that does the best job of enhancing Denver’s snow sports experience — specifically, Southern Colorado ski areas, said a spokesman for Colorado Ski Country USA, which supports Front Range ski resorts. “This season in particular, some of our resorts will be getting a little more snow earlier than expected.”
And that’s just what happened on Tuesday afternoon. Typically, snow-loving resorts prefer March or April to have enough snow to keep resorts open until the weekend or so between spring break and the start of fall skiing.
This season hasn’t been so sunny for resorts like Breckenridge, Vail, Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin. Breckenridge opened its best December ever, with 98 inches of snow, according to the Colorado Mountain Information Center. But it ended the first week of February with only 29 inches in a full week.
In October, Arapahoe Basin announced that it would not reopen for skiing and riding until the 30th of the month.
Copper Mountain began selling its Front Range season pass in January, and that was supposed to help remedy its severe Colorado ski season dilemma. Instead, the rate increased 23 percent compared to last year.
It’s a tight spot all ski resorts in Colorado find themselves in. As snow piling up at resorts in the southern half of the state sends a steady stream of skiers to Front Range resorts, the dry weather up north is not helping.
“The weather patterns are out of kilter in the southwestern part of the state, so some of those resorts are having to open earlier than usual,” said Colin McNeely, vice president of communications for Colorado Ski Country USA. “Their costs are increasing. Their revenue is going down.”
Ski resorts in the San Juan Mountains are also reporting that they’re having trouble this season, McNeely said. “These ski areas have experienced unusually dry weather.”
Part of the problem this year is that ski resort operators can’t count on a steady snowfall that comes each winter. When the weather up north has been so cold or light that it’s left bare snow up north, resorts must open their lifts up their slopes early to keep the rest of their season open. But what that means is that when the time comes for the southern-most resorts to open, they’re already behind schedule.
That can be a problem because most of the year in Colorado is warm and dry. The climate change message is getting louder and clearer, even as ski resorts struggle to keep the lifts running throughout the season.
Snowboarders are concerned about the likelihood of a prolonged drought, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. And what’s the cost of not opening slopes in the West? According to the National Ski Areas Association, resorts are paying more to deal with frozen water towers and other infrastructure. That leaves less money to make more snow.
This season, for example, the ski area Vail in the Colorado Rockies paid more than $5 million in water bonds. This summer, the ski areas will have to pay about $250,000 to repair or replace abandoned pump stations and pipes.
Is it worth it for these resorts to continue to make good use of their snow-making machines? Even if you like to ride into the mountains on your own or on the baggy-skied back of a skier or snowboarder — what do you think?