With flocks of snowboarders seeking the skate park or surf in pursuit of their usual winter adrenaline fix, it’s time to accept that something is amiss this winter. Unless you are a zombie, this is not hard to do for anyone visiting ski resorts in California, Colorado, Utah…and it’s easy to see if you look to unexpected victims like Bogus Basin, ID, which has lost an estimated $2 million with a record-late start of January 19.
I’m an avid skier, and since I live in the northeast I try to save some vacation time so I can get ski days (and hopefully powder days) out west. This year, of course, has been complicated by record bad years up and down the Rockies and throughout California.
Now anyone spending multiple days amid beautiful mountains (even if they are mostly snow barren) can’t ask for too much pity, and that’s not what this is about. This is about the no-snow winter afoot in 2011/2012, and how people are either dealing with it or denying it.
Right after New Year’s I visited Colorado and found strange things awaiting me. Vail’s famous Back Bowls were dirt and gravel, and there were places on the front side with the kind of ice you don’t normally see outside of the Northeast. In retrospect, I know see that my visit coincided with Vail commissioning snowdances from Southern Ute tribesman, which is apparently becoming a go-to-practice in this desperate winter.
After the disappointment at Vail we drove north in shirtsleeves, windows down, bound for Steamboat Springs. Nothing quite like a January springtime in the mountains.
Riding up the lift that first day at Steamboat we looked down on scabs of earth and listened to the irregular wounds inflicted by rocks and roots on the bottoms of skis and boards. Many of non- arterial runs had been left to seed (though not fully closed, so that you could still ski yourself into a trap). The trees were no-man’s land. There were even hang-gliders taking off of Steamboat’s Storm Peak; skier gathered round, happy to stand in the spring sun, even if it was January.
The staff at Steamboat seemed committed to some Orwellian plot in which the snow was sublime. After a friend had landed hard on the concrete-hard surface, we waited outside the ski patrol hut at the top of the mountain. A greeter approached us and started to talk about how Steamboat had “the best conditions in the country.” I took issue with this and she continued; they had “more open terrain than anywhere else in the country.” I pointed out it had been snowing in Whistler since Christmas—British Columbia is doing just fine, thank you—but she wasn’t hearing it. Good thing we’re finding mobile ways to audit ski area snow reports.
At lunch, we reuninted with other friends and found one of them had hit his head on the ice. He couldn’t remember anything, and after three ski patrollers tended to him they sent him to the hospital with a concussion. As all this was going on, I went to get a bowl of chili (which still costs $10, powder or no). The cashier asked me how my day was going, and I replied candidly, that I wished there was no snow. She was having none of this. “It’s good out there.” I begged to differ and mentioned people were getting hurt. “Well that’s why people need to be careful,” she said. I took my chili and proceeded to get a sunburn in the solarium-style dining area.
Those of us who were paying attention to empirical evidence turned to humor and cynicism. Our condo had a fancy French name, which we converted to “Chateau Chama-blah.” We met people from the place next door, The Ptarmigan Inn, had renamed it the Parmesan Inn. Everything becomes cheesy when the skiing sucks.
I wanted something different from Utah last week, but that’s not what we got. It was marginally better at Park City, in part because they got some snow accumulation during Sundance while no one was skiing, but this was a Pyrrhic victory. In general it was more of the same: cruiser runs on snowmaking life support, pining for powder, more injuries and more people seeking distractions off the slopes. It did snow on Sunday, as everyone was leaving, but this wasn’t enough to kill off any toilet metaphors being used to describe the season:
“We are heading down the toilet. We have gone around the bowl once, but we have not gone all the way,” said Randy Julander of the Utah Snow Survey. “This storm that we just had kept us from declining further.”
Oh well. I’m not going to resort to true despair quite yet. Climate change volatility being what it is, I fully expect an epic powder month in March in someplace, maybe someplace unexpected. And it looks like resorts are looking for other ways to keep us entertained, and isn’t that a relief. Somehow we will survive all this, even if a bunch of ski areas don’t.
UPDATE ON 2/20: The zombie uprising in Steamboat Springs has been quelled thanks to 27 inches of snow and the efforts of zombie hunters undaunted by the holiday weekend. Here is photographic evidence: