Mountain News: Bigger fish swallow the smaller ski fish 

click to enlarge Bigger Fish, Small Pond
  • Bigger Fish, Small Pond

PARK CITY, Utah — The latest case of a big fish swallowing smaller fish in the ski industry is Deer Valley's purchase of Solitude Mountain, both located in the Wasatch Range of Utah.

Deer Valley is by far the larger of the two resorts, with three times the volume as measured by skier days, three quarters of that from destination visitors, or those who spend at least a night while on the ski trip. It's located in Park City, on the east side of the range with a great deal of intermediate terrain and, on a clear day, provides views into Wyoming.

Solitude Mountain is on the west side of the range, in Big Cottonwood Canyon, and about three-quarters of its customers come from the nearby Wasatch Front. There is beginner and intermediate terrain, but also scare-your-pants-off steeps, cliffs and other derring-do.

For all their differences, the two ski areas are relatively close, a 20-minute drive by car in summer, but just a three to four minutes by helicopter. Yet the proximity itself is not what made Solitude Mountain so attractive to Deer Valley, says Bob Wheaton, the long-time general manager.

Instead, Wheaton identifies a host of factors. In addition to diversity of terrain and diversity of clientele provided by Solitude, he says Solitude has a strong performance under ownership of the DeSeelhorst family over the last 40 years.

"We have been looking at acquiring other ski areas for a number of years, and we have done our due diligence in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah," he told Mountain Town News. What brought Solitude over the finish line was that it's already a "very well run resort," he said. "It's not like we would need to go in and dismantle the operations and start over and wipe the slate clean. That's not the case. Those guys do an outstanding job over there."

The change in ownership and operations is scheduled to occur on May 1. Deer Valley says it does not plan to rebrand Solitude, except to let the public know that Solitude is now part of the "Deer Valley family."

Snowboarding will continue to be allowed at Solitude, unlike at Deer Valley.

Will this lead to the connection of Deer Valley and Solitude? Not necessarily. Deer Valley supports Ski Utah's One Wasatch plan to link the seven ski areas congregated on the two sides of the Wasatch Range. The current plan envisions Solitude linking to Park City Mountain Resort, but then dropping the rope that separates Park City from Deer Valley.

Wheaton, who has been at Deer Valley since before its opening 33 years ago, says this "present alignment makes the most sense of anything that we have looked at" in the last three decades.

He also echoes comments made after the acquisition by Mammoth Mountain of two other ski areas in California. The purchase attests to the profitability of ski area operations to those who pay careful attention to what they are doing.

"The margins are not the largest, but if you pay attention and know what you are doing, it can be a profitable endeavor," says Wheaton.

'No' to a gated subdivision

WHITEFISH, Mont. — Elected officials in Whitefish are standing firm, telling a homeowners association at Grouse Mountain Estates that gates cannot be installed to keep out the general public.

In this ruling, city officials reaffirmed a long-standing policy that goes back to the 1990s, explains the Whitefish Pilot. An exhaustive community-wide planning process in 2007 identified a community perception of gated communities as a "problem and a threat to Whitefish's small-town feel and neighborhood character."

Is this case different? The Pilot explains that Grouse Mountain homeowners found that work on a nearby road resulted in many people driving through the subdivision, to avoid traffic delays. The subdivision is one of several subdivisions in Whitefish with privately maintained streets and roads.

Slow real estate thaw at outlier mountain towns

GRANBY, Colo. — While real estate sales have edged toward sizzle in places like Aspen, the market has just started thawing in outlier mountain towns like Granby.

A case in point is Grand Elk, which about a decade ago was being marketed as "Colorado as it used to be." The real estate development in Granby remains, for better or worse, a lot like Colorado as it used to be.

The Sky-Hi News, however, reports that Wyndham Worldwide, a holding company for Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, plans at least six new "Presidential Casitas" to be completed next year. Details are sketchy. Wyndham corporate representatives told the newspaper they would answer questions only after construction was completed and units had been sold.

Big wall would protect from floods

CANMORE, Alberta — Strictly by the statistics, the flooding that very nearly destroyed several dozen homes in Canmore in June 2013 should occur only once every few hundred years.

But then again, it could happen next year. Or even worse flooding could occur. Calculating the odds, elected officials in the gateway town at the entrance to Banff National Park are considering pulling the trigger on a mitigating measure.

A consultant recommends a 30-metre high "debris flood retention structure" at a cost of $40 million, to store water and debris during major rain events.

Examination of the deposits along the creek indicate that last year's flooding was a once-in-400-years event. But floods with two or three times as much debris have occurred. This proposed structure would anticipate one of those larger events, which in the past happened every 1,000 to 3,000 years.

What makes Cougar Creek more problematic than other mountain creeks in Canmore is the possibility of rockslides. These rocks can block the creek channel, the dam creating a reservoir of water that is likely to then burst, creating a much bigger wall of water, explains Mathias Jakob, a consultant from Vancouver.

Jakob also warns that data collected to the south of Canmore, in Kananaskis Country, shows a trend of more heavy rainfall events since 1939.

"We cannot say absolutely for sure if this trend will continue. But should that trend continue, we may see an event like that every year," Jakob added, alluding to last year's flood.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook says that Canmore is prepared to spend $4 million for the flood control work, but expects the remaining $36 million would need to come from provincial and federal coffers.

Spruce and fir forests to become much different

GUNNISON, Colo. — Unlike northern Colorado, where lodgepole pine dominate mountain slopes, spruce and fur hold sway in Gunnison County. They take 200 to 400 years to grow, unlike lodgepole, which live maybe 120 years.

But after about 90 per cent of lodgepole stands have succumbed to a fungus spread by bark beetles, the spruce and fir trees are now facing insects and disease.

A forester recently told the Gunnison County Commissioners that up to 90 per cent morality may occur. That means the local landscape around Gunnison and Crested Butte will look very different in coming years — and stay different.

Dollar-store type of season ski passes

TRUCKEE, Calif. — It seemed like too good to be true. It was.

People checking out the website for Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows found that season passes cost only $1. The Gold Tahoe Super passes normally cost $809. So some people bought the sweetly priced passes as if they were a can of tuna. Some people grabbed a handful.

Alas, the cost advertised between midnight and 9 a.m. was a technical glitch, and the ski area operator said the deal was off. Buyers were refunded their $1 and offered a special price, but not nearly as good. The Sierra Sun reports some buyer remorse.

Street named after Olympian Shiffrin

AVON, Colo. — They like Mikaela Shiffrin well enough in Avon to name a street for her. Formerly West Benchmark Road, a name that honours the development company that launched Avon in the 1970s, is now named Mikaela Way, to honour the Olympic gold-medal prize winner who grew up a kilometre or two away.

"It's surreal to have a street named after me," she said at the dedication.

The Vail Daily reports that Shiffrin was sporting a bandaged eye from an injury given to her accidentally by a teammate.

"I was doing some balance training exercises and I hit my teammate's knee with my eyebrow, and it was like the skin-on-skin collision just pulled my eyebrow apart," she said.

Breck voters to cast thumbs on cannabis

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Voters in Breckenridge will be asked at a special election in December whether marijuana sales should be allowed at stores located on Main Street.

Visitors shop for everything from T-shirts to fine art on Main Street, the Victorian-themed district. Just one store, the Breckenridge Cannabis Club, sells cannabis, and it has done so for five years, since medicinal sales were allowed. Four other stores sell cannabis in an outlying place where plumbing contractors and other such businesses are headquartered.

This coming vote will be non-binding on the town council. That there is any kind of debate at all in Breckenridge, which early on supported legalization of marijuana sales and by wide margins, is the real surprise.

What has changed? The demographics of the town, as newly arriving retirees sink more conservative roots. There are the usual complaints about "image" of having a place that sells marijuana.

Writing in The Denver Post, Steve Lipsher noted a stinky attitude.

"This, of course, is a town that regularly closes down its entire Main Street for big, drunken bashes like last month's Oktoberfest, boasts more than 70 drinking establishments, crows about every magazine's "best après-ski" designation, and markets heavily on college campuses in hopes of attracting boisterous spring-break crowds," he says.

"Some might call that a paradox. Some might say it's hypocritical."

Sleep apnea and other afflictions of thin air

FRISCO, Colo. — The elevation of Frisco is about 2,700 metres, and a lot of Summit County is higher yet. Some people live nearly to tree line along the road to Hoosier Pass, elevation 3,500 metres.

There's a lot less oxygen in the air than is found even in Denver, elevation 1,600 metres, and even less when compared to sea-level places like Seattle, Houston and, for all practical purposes, Chicago.

What are the effects of living in such thin oxygen? The Summit Daily News reports a trio of local doctors recently put on a presentation. People in Ethiopia, Tibet and other high-elevation places have had time to genetically adapt, but the 50,000 Coloradoans now living at higher elevations have not.

Warren Johnson, a cardiologist, said pulmonary hypertension, or increased pressure in the blood vessels of the lungs, and heart irregularities grow more common among people in Summit County and other high-altitude locations.

Pulmonary hypertension can damage blood vessels and increase the risk of localized clotting. He said the medical community doesn't yet know the prevalence of high-altitude pulmonary hypertension.

For that matter, doctors don't yet understand what precise genes make some people susceptible to pulmonary hypertension or other altitude-related medical problems.

Sleep apnea contributes to pulmonary hypertension. Luckily for most people, the problem can be dealt with by sleeping with extra oxygen. A drug called acetazolamide, better known by the brand name Diamox, also works.

About one in 20 people under age 35 experience sleep apnea, but once people reach age 55, the prevalence grows to about one in five.

Sinusitis is also a more common problem at higher altitude, although it's not clear why.

Not all boats rise as high in this voyage to prosperity

JACKSON, Wyo. — Sales are back to an all-time high as reflected by local tax collections in Jackson and Teton County, points out Jonathan Schechter, a columnist for the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Jobs are back, too, after a recession that saw eight per cent of jobs vanish in 2008 and another three per cent the next year.

But the jobs that have returned are not all equal. Tourism still accounts for about half of all local jobs that pay wages or salaries, and the typical wage in a tourism job is still relatively low, $27,000 per year. This compares with $40,500 for the average overall job in Teton County.

"What's striking is this: During the last 13 years, even with the recession, wages in almost every income category increased around 40 per cent," Schechter writes. But white-collar jobs — including information, finance, management and professional services and health care — now pay 70 per cent more.

With this added edge, people in higher-paying, white-collar jobs can better compete for the limited local housing. "The consequences of this dynamic hit with a vengeance this past June, when local tourism-related businesses had such a hard time finding help," Schechter notes.

One possible take-away: spending lodging tax dollars on providing more affordable housing might benefit the tourism sector as much as promotion of the charms of Jackson Hole.

Park City installing solar panels

PARK CITY, Utah — The Park City government has decided to invest in even more solar energy. Before, the city government had 438 panels generating a little less than 145,000 kilowatt-hours a year. But the city council recently pulled the trigger on another 755 solar panels. Solar workers project the panels will generate 300,000 kilowatt-hours per year.

This new system on the Municipal Athletic & Recreation Center is expected to provide 20 per cent of the electricity used at the facility. It cost $424,500, reports The Park Record.

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