Mountain News: Christmas not as bad as feared 

TELLURIDE, Colo. - From Telluride to Whistler, it seems to have been a tolerably good Christmas in ski towns.

"Sales were down, but they were not catastrophic like we were expecting," said Jackie Schuiling, co-owner of SlopeStyle, a store in Telluride.

"We did OK, but we could have done better," said Peter Hazard, manager of Paragon Ski and Sports.

The owners of a T-shirt store called Hole-E-Shirt tells The Telluride Watch that they were thinking about closing down when two groups of college students, 1,600 altogether, arrived in January. Business got much better.

The big change from last year is that buyers tended to be more cautious in their spending.

Ski Country USA reported a 7.7 per cent decline in visits through December, compared to the previous year. That includes the Aspen Skiing Co.'s drop of 7.3 per cent. Vail Resorts, which has four ski areas located proximate to Colorado's 4 million residents east of the Front Range, fared slightly better, with a 6 per cent decline.

In Whistler, paid room nights in December were down 11 per cent compared with the previous year. But compared to the December average of the previous five years, the downturn was just 2 to 3 per cent.

As is the case with many other resorts, Whistler has seen a sharper reduction in distant markets partially offset by an increase in more local markets, in that case from the Vancouver metropolitan area.

At the start of the season, Tourism Whistler warned of declines ranging from 5 per cent to 12 per cent. But the bad economy and, in the case of Whistler, low snowpack are being offset by lower gas prices. Also, the Canadian dollar has lagged in value, making American dollars worth more.

January, however, is always a more difficult month, and this one has been no exception. In Jackson, Wyo., a chamber of commerce barometer showed bookings for the coming weekend to be 21 per cent behind last year.

The downturn isn't for lack of trying by resorts. Last week, a family from Chicago flew to Crested Butte at a roundtrip cost of $165. Nor was it necessary to book months, or even weeks, in advance.

In Steamboat Springs, ski area boss Chris Diamond told a local group that Steamboat is doing reasonably well.

"In terms of this season, it's not the end of the world," he said, in an appearance covered by the Steamboat Pilot & Today. "We're going to get through it." Diamond, who is president of the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., said he "wouldn't be surprised" if the ski area ends up down in total visits less than 10 per cent.

But he also warned that the economy is likely to stay soured for probably a couple of years. That estimate is derived, he said, from conversations with people from Fortress Investment Group, the parent company of Intrawest, which owns Steamboat and 10 other ski areas in North America. In Colorado, Intrawest also owns Copper Mountain and Winter Park, and Whistler and Blackcomb in British Columbia.

Diamond said the silver lining is that Steamboat is putting on a good face for its customers. Customer satisfaction for services this winter so far is at 8.2, better than last year's 7.8 and, for that matter, highest among all the Intrawest resorts.

"We need to make sure next year we do everything we can to make the Steamboat product differentiated in the market," he told the crowd.

Evidence tells battle of life and death

CANMORE, Alberta - Wildlife issues are a theme in all resort-based mountain towns of the West. That is, at least in part, why people live there.

But in Canmore, at the eastern entrance to Canada's Banff National Park, rarely does a week go by without a wildlife story. There are bears foraging grain spilled from passing trains and getting killed. Last week a wolf got caught between the fences along the TransCanada Highway that were intended to keep it out. And just a year or two ago, a woman was killed by a grizzly bear while out jogging.

But after writing about such stories for a year, Justin Brisbane of the Rocky Mountain Outlook finally got wildlife authorities to allow him to the blood-and-guts scene of a story. It was, he confides, more than what he had expected.

A mountain lion had downed a 200-pound bighorn sheep in the middle of the aptly named Cougar Creek, not far from a popular hiking trail. Wildlife officials decided it wasn't prudent to leave the carcass so close to a place where people happened by.

But how the carcass came to be in the creek is the story. Like crime investigators, the wildlife officers reconstructed the battle. Hidden by bushes, the cougar had awaited the ram and then pounced. Usually, a mountain lion will crush the windpipe until its prey falls within a matter of minutes, suffocated. This ram held out longer.

The animals, says Brisbane, tumbled 100 feet down a slope, the cougar riding the sheep in a struggle to the death. Tufts of hair and footprints spiraled downwards, as the sheep appeared to use trees to dislodge the cat. This, alone, is unusual. Once cougars latch onto their prey, it's rare they will unleash. Some even succumb to injuries following a battle.

Finally, both animals fell off an eight-foot cliff into the bed of the icy creek. Only then was there blood, as the lion sliced the sheep's nose. The sheep continued to struggle, zig-zagging across the valley floor, leaving a crimson trail upon the snow, until finally it succumbed in the middle of the frozen creek.

Usually, a cougar will drag its prey into the woods to eat. But not this time, which is why it was noticed. And, say the wildlife officers, no doubt the cougar was in among the rocks above, watching this removal of its hard-earned meal with great distress.

For Brisbane, the reporter, the issue of wildlife ceased to be one of simply of poring over reports or scientific studies. This was different, and utterly visceral. "The brutality of this attack was equally fascinating and horrific," he writes.

Business not heating up

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. - Not all business is down. The Crested Butte News finds that second-hand stores are having a handsome winter. In Gunnison, the Six Pints Thrift Store was expected to have a 50 per cent increase in business as compared to last. La Escondida, a store in Crested Butte, reports increased business - but also more people asking for discounts, even on items priced at just $1. Store owner Clara Valdez says no - she's making enough money now to pay rent, but not yet enough to turn on the heat.

No money to loan

TELLURIDE, Colo. - Storm clouds, dark and menacing, seemed to be in every direction when bankers and mortgage company representatives spoke at a panel presentation in Telluride. There just doesn't seem to be much money available to borrow for real-estate purchases, they said, and what money is available is far more bundled in red tape that may not apply to resort areas.

"Everything is log-jammed," said Tricia Maxson, president of Community Bank. "Capital is impossible to get except from the government, and we're not getting that. The federal bailout money being administered through the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP, isn't yet getting to the local level in Colorado," she said.

Mike Volk, of U.S. Bank, said that under-capitalized banks won't be lending money, because they're trying to shore up their own capital. Jimmy Brenner, of Blue Sky Mortgage, complained that guidelines governing lending are rapidly changing. "What you could do yesterday, you can't do today."

Yes, there was a bit of silver glint on these clouds. "Things are slowly getting better," said Kathy McJoynt, of Vectra Bank. "There is money available. Just expect it to be different than it used to be."

Hilton gets a Sundance deal

PARK CITY, Utah - Park City homeowner Michael Kaplan ended up renting his home during the Sundance Film Festival to full-time celebrity Paris Hilton. Kaplan tells the Park Record that he expected a "lot of attitude," but instead found her "actually very sweet."

The two-night rental resulted from what a New York newspaper reported was a last-minute squabble with Hilton's sister, who had previously booked lodging for the festival. Kaplan let out the four-bedroom unit for $1,000 a night, compared to his usual $1,200. He said he rued the concession after learning who his customer had been.

The New York Times, meanwhile, reports sales of movies at the festival this year came slowly, reflecting the economy. There were no blockbuster sales. Still, at the end of the 109-day stream of films, it appeared that total would match or exceed the $15 million spent on rights to Sundance movies last year.

The Park Record also notes that the festival was, the presence of Hilton to the contrary notwithstanding, discernibly light on celebrities this year. Maybe they wanted to be in Washington D.C. for the inauguration.

Obama's special envoy

TELLURIDE, Colo. - You wouldn't call Richard Holbrooke a native of Telluride, but he's certainly no stranger. Holbrooke, who was appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama last week to be the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has a long and extensive relationship with Telluride. He has a home there, and speaks there occasionally. The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton presidency, Holbrooke outlined his views of Obama's challenge in the world in an essay published last August in the journal called "Foreign Affairs."

Gardening to good health

SILVERTHORNE, Colo. - By the sheer number of fast-food restaurants it has, Silverthorne might well be called the greasiest town in ski country. But work is underway to go in a completely different direction.

The Summit Daily News reports of an effort underway to create a community garden. The effort was recently bolstered by a $2,500 grant from the Summit Prevention Alliance, which is part of a broader initiative in Colorado that aims to reduce overweight and obesity rates.

As well, the garden is seen as a way of stitching people together into a community fabric.

Locals will be able to rent plots for growing season. An organizer tells the newspaper that only vegetables will be allowed to be grown.

Hmmm... what are the options in a place with a frost-free season of 40 days?

January rainstorm soaks Vail

VAIL, Colo. - It rained last weekend in Vail, a hard, drenching rain, and not just down in Vail Village. It even rained in the snow.

Those who have skied Vail since shortly after it opened in 1962 say that rain, if certainly uncommon, is not totally unheard of, even in January. Still, this is the second January rainstorm in the last three years.

Better Aspen than elsewhere

ASPEN, Colo. - Peggy Rowland died recently and she was, to the end, a loyalist to Aspen. She was 93, and was born in Aspen at the tail end of its mining era.

Both her grandfathers had arrived in the town during the first flush of the silver-mining boom, one in 1880 and the other a few years later. When she was still a child, in 1919, her family fled Aspen to find sufficient work. As such, she knew Aspen only as a summer-time visitor. But that was enough. She and her husband, Harold "Red" Rowland, a man known for his calloused hands, moved to Aspen in 1946, he to help build the chairlifts at the new ski areas, and she to rear their four children and teach school.

Their daughter, Roine St. Andre, recalled that her father always said, "I'd rather be a fire hydrant in Aspen than a millionaire anywhere else." She told the Aspen Times that she believes her mom subscribed to that theory as well.

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