Peter Shelton

As usual, ski area closes too soon

Posted in Ski evolution, Watch columns by pshelton on April 8, 2010

Closing day at Telluride was such a beauty. Easter Sunday, and after a cold, windy week, the sun worked its magic on the hard surfaces, turning them slightly wet and slippery, smooth as lemon sorbet.

There were girls skiing in skirts. And at least one pirate in full-bearded regalia. And neon wigs, and a few vintage one-piece suits. And stretch pants. Oh, boy, if that doesn’t define an era. If you’ve still got a pair of in-the-boot stretch pants in your closet, and you can still fit into them, good on ya. Closing day is the day to strut it.

But, as often happens, closing day came too soon. Spring is still largely a rumor. And the coverage on the ski mountain is as good as it gets thanks to that 20-inch storm on the 27th and to better than average snowfall throughout March. According to snow safety director Craig Sterbenz, Telluride received 68.8 inches of snow last month, 137 percent of the 30-year average. It was the best March since 2000.

And the quality of the surface was (is) spectacular; I can’t remember seeing fewer thin patches, even on steep sunny aspects like Apex Glade. You could turn anywhere with impunity. Shove snow out of the way with your tails if you wanted. Etch perfect carves. Beyond hero snow, it was invincible snow.

So, the question arises: Why close on April 4? Why not keep the lifts, or some of them, running until the snow gives out? Or run them at least a few more weeks until golf and gardening really do assert their powers?

Telluride is one of only three major Colorado areas (with Crested Butte and Aspen Highlands) to close so early. Vail, Steamboat, Winter Park, the Summit County areas—all are still open. And they didn’t get the bigger snow numbers the southern mountains did.

I know, it’s a business decision. I could ask Telski CEO Dave Riley about the bottom-line numbers, but he probably wouldn’t tell me. Nor should he. I’m sure the calculus includes the traditional drop in post-Spring Break destination skiers, the likelihood (or not) of down-valley drive-ups, the still-hungry locals and pesky season pass holders, who long ago made good (some of them very good) on their investment.

But I’ve long held that if the ski industry wants to train customers to keep coming well into spring—as I think it should—it needs to be there for them. April is often a great month to ski, more often, I would say, than November is. But all of the emphasis these days is on early season: Hype the early snowstorms, get the reservations machine cranking, make artificial snow like there’s no tomorrow. Open limited terrain and call it brilliant. Skiers are so amped by months of waiting they’ll scratch away at the minimal offerings and say it was wonderful.

Which just increases the irony about April, when the sliding can be so superior. Ellen and I were talking about some of our formative spring-ski days back in Bear Valley, which stayed open until May all three seasons we were there. E remembers mornings before ski school line-up when the sun had yet to reach the snow in Horse Canyon, and the rolling shapes there were covered in a fine crystalline latticework. As if the night had woven a tinkling carpet just to hold our edges.

And then, if there were no lessons, we’d ski back down to the village on a south-facing ridge dotted with weathered Henry-Moore trees and lichen-splashed boulders. Here the sun had penetrated a moist half inch, loosening the crystal bonds and silencing everything except for a soft whooshing sound—ski turns as the satisfied breath of winter.

I suppose if I had the time and the gas money, I could follow the path of ski-area closing days from Vail (April 18) to Aspen (April 25) to Snowbird (Memorial Day) to Arapahoe Basin (sometime in June) to Mammoth Mountain (traditionally at least until Independence Day, July 4th). That would be fun. But I’d just as soon stay home and ski.

On the chairlift Sunday I heard a lot of wistful comments about the excellent snow and the shame that there would be no more lift-served access to it. It’s human nature to want more. More of what takes us high, makes us feel graceful. It’s OK for seasons to shift, for winter to end. Just not, as Orson Welles used to say about California wines, before its time.

3 Responses

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  1. Mary Ann Dismant said, on April 9, 2010 at 2:57 am

    Peter, What a fun Easter Sunday on the slopes. Felt as if I were right there with the crowd. Especially felt that poignancy of your apt ending quotation by Orson Welles..

    Happy writing!
    Mary Ann

  2. Katara said, on April 13, 2010 at 3:24 am

    OH, Great article

  3. Bob Berwyn said, on October 10, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    Amen! The early season snowmaking is out of control in Summit County, depleting streams during the critical spawning season, when flows are already at their lowest. And for what? To crank up the PR machine and lure people to what more than a few locals call the white ribbon of death.

    But it’s not just the ski areas — the local business community screams for a set opening date, and the resorts advertise that date as if set in stone without one iota of acknowledgment that winter is a gift from the gods, not something that can be manufactured by a machine.

    Often – especially the past few years, as climate change seems to be taking hold – the October snowmaking is a race against warm, sunny days. They make snow at night, the next day, some of it melts.

    Better to make snow a bit later, starting in mid-November. That way, you’d have a better sense of how much you will really need. And yes to emphasizing the latter part of the season. It’s really much more pleasant to ski in April than in November.

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