Mountain News: Hot (for winter) and not enough snow 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LIJUAN GUO / SHUTTERSTOCK - No-Go on Snow Mountain resorts across western North America, like Banff, pictured, are dealing with unseasonably warm temperatures and low snowfall this season.
  • Photo by Lijuan Guo / shutterstock
  • No-Go on Snow Mountain resorts across western North America, like Banff, pictured, are dealing with unseasonably warm temperatures and low snowfall this season.

FRASER, Colo. — Across the North American West, temperatures in late January were disconcertingly warm and snowfall discouragingly thin.

In Colorado, it was nigh-on-to-shorts weather in places. Not good if you're putting together a ski-racing course at Vail and Beaver Creek. The resorts are hosting the World Alpine Ski Championships from Feb. 2 through 15.

In Steamboat Springs, it was worse. There have been balmier Januaries, but the ski area got just 30 centimetres, the lowest total since record-keeping on the ski mountain began in 1979, says The Steamboat Pilot & Today. On Saturday, Jan. 31, the newspaper reported bare patches lower on the mountain. The base elevation is 2,100 metres.

Vail and Beaver Creek are higher, at 2,450 metres, and they are hosting the World Alpine Ski Championships through Feb. 15. But crews last week fretted over whether the warm weather would make it difficult to establish a solid base for racers.

At Fraser, the self-proclaimed icebox of the nation, the freezer is out of whack. Temperatures of 34 C or even 40 C below zero used to be common even into the early 1940s, but so far this year the town has shivered through just one night of 29 below.

Andy Miller, a long-time resident, reports many nights of near-freezing temperatures, but also this: a drizzly rain. That, he said, is a first for January in his memory.

In California, it was worse. Along the shores of Lake Tahoe, "people are raking, picking up pine cones and wondering if winter is only for those who live on the East Coast," reported the Lake Tahoe News, which described the situation as "horrible."

The state water agency said that based on January snowpack, it's "likely that California's drought will run through a fourth consecutive year." January will likely go down as the driest month in California's recorded history.

In Alberta, weather was so warm in the Banff-Canmore area that firefighters set fire to four hectares of dry grass, to reduce later fire danger. Three-and-a-half hour northwest at Jasper, the Fitzhugh talked about melting snow and rain showers. But examining weather records from the past 30 years, the newspaper blamed faulty memories, not errant weather.

"Despite our memories of frigid Januaries, full of long johns, woolies and frozen eyelashes, this January's weather... is nothing new or unusual."

He yodeled to the end

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — Julian Vogt died recently at age 103, but he was skiing to the very end.

Born in 1911, he retired to Glenwood Springs in 1971 and became a regular on the local ski hill. He took up snowboarding when in his late 70s and stuck with it until just a few years ago, when he switched to the greater safety of the Nordic trails. The Glenwood Post Independent reports that he was still cross-country skiing just a couple of weeks ago.

Down in Glenwood, he was also a regular at the hot springs, where he kept in shape by swimming laps.

"This goes out to my main man Julian, who's up there in heaven dancing, smiling, laughing and yodeling," wrote a former Post Independent staff writer, April Clark, in a Facebook posting.

The difficulty of sharing ski trails

JACKSON, Wyo. — Remember when skiers were constantly cussing out snowboarders? On the groomed trails designed for skate skiers, the sharing economy is even harder.

Writing in the Jackson Hole News&Guide, Molly Absolon tells about all the frustrations of tripping on the gouges left in the trail's snow by mothers with children in tow out for their afternoon hikes. Then, there's the newer issue of the rising popularity of fat bikes, with big tires.

"In some ways the situation between Nordic skiers and fat bikers takes me back to the time when snowboarders first began flying down the slopes at ski areas," she writes. "As a skier I had no idea how to share the slope with boarders. I didn't understand their rhythm and found their speed disconcerting."

She thinks they've gotten over that, but admits to some peevishness on the skate trails.

"We need a trail that's approximately (four metres) wide and smooth for our perfect set up. It's asking a lot for walkers and bikers to stay off that welcoming white path. But when the snow is soft, that is what needs to happen or you'll hear some complaints."

$350 million to help make Taos competitive

TAOS, N.M. — An outline of how Taos Ski Valley intends to become more competitive in the ski industry has been unveiled. The Taos News reports that an economic impact analysis anticipates more than $350 million in investments for infrastructure, real estate developments and recreational facilities.

The giant financial hand at work belongs to billionaire Louis Bacon, who completed purchase of the ski area last summer from the family of founder Ernie Blake.

Investment in a revitalized Taos has already begun, but the document prepared by Doug Kennedy Advisors projects $238.8 million in real estate improvements done by the resort plus $45 million in real estate investment by other parties. Also expected are investments of $43.9 million in public amenities and $23.5 million in recreational facilities.

Neil King, mayor of the base-area municipality, told the newspaper that existing utilities and facilities are "barely adequate" for the present homes and businesses. The ski area, he explained, can't finish its redevelopment until municipality infrastructure is upgraded.

Among the projects planned: a redesign of the base area to include a public plaza and riverwalk, but also an expanded wastewater treatment plant.

But the municipality can't possibility afford to do those upgrades with existing revenues. To move forward, it seeks to use a common financing vehicle called tax-increment financing. A proposed taxing district would allow the resort to front the cost for those improvements and be reimbursed later from future tax revenues.

Gordon Briner, chief executive of Taos Ski Valley, said the tax district would help speed up redevelopment. "This allows things that might be on the five to 10 year plan to happen relatively quickly."

Briner said that annual skier visits between 2000 and 2010 were down 25 per cent from those during the 1990s, while ski areas elsewhere have seen visitation grow. "A lot of our development is to try to get us back to where we were 20 years ago," he said.

Will towns start buying lower-tier ski resorts?

DENVER, Colo. — Could municipalities end up buying their local ski hills?

Some already do. Denver owns Winter Park, but has Intrawest manage it via a long-term agreement. Steamboat Springs operates a small ski area, its original ski area, called Howelsen Hill.

In Idaho, Brundage Basin is operated by a non-profit in nearby Boise, while a similar arrangement oversees Montana's Bridger Bowl.

Even Vail, the municipality, flirted briefly with the idea of trying to buy Vail Mountain out of the bankruptcy of George Gillett's empire in the early 1990s.

At a ski industry gathering covered by The Aspen Times, long-time ski executive Bill Jensen suggested that municipalities could wind up buying the more economically marginal ski areas.

He broke the 470 ski resorts in the United States into five tiers. The 10 ├╝ber and 34 alpha resorts account for 40 per cent of ski business.

Then comes the 125 status quo resorts, with flat annual revenues.

Toward the bottom, in terms of revenue and profits, are the survivors and then, at the very bottom, the sunset resorts, those heading toward insolvency.

Will municipalities end up buying both these just-getting-by resorts or those on the cliff's edge? Jensen suggested that's one option.

He certainly has experience in the ski industry. He kept Intrawest from going over the cliff, but before that headed various operations of the Vail Resorts empire. Earlier in his career, he also managed several ski areas in California.

Three overdoses in one night in Park City

PARK CITY, Utah — Police were summoned to Park City's largest and liveliest nightclub to three overdoses in just one night, reports The Park Record. The substances causing the overdoses were not reported, except the possible use of GHB, called the "date rape drug." The OD victims, who survived, were all men in their mid-20s.

100th anniversary of the 'Rocky' park

ESTES PARK, Colo. — "Rocky" is 100 years old. In January 1915, a bill was signed in Washington D.C. that established Rocky Mountain National Park. The park was opened in September of that year.

The key figure in that effort was Enos Mills, a native of Kansas who spent his winters working at the copper mines of Butte, Mont. so he could afford to gambol about the high peaks along the Continental Divide northwest of Denver.

He wrote about his experiences in a variety of books. One of them told of a spring afternoon, after snow had firmed up, Mills watching a grizzly bear slide down a steep slope of snow, then climbing up to do it again.

Some thought had been given to a national park in Colorado's San Juan Mountains. But those mountains had been picked over hard by miners, who found much to reward their efforts in the way of gold, silver and other deposits. The northerly portion of Colorado's Front Range, lying outside the mineral belt, remained better preserved.

Employees fined for damaging snail habitat

BANFF, Alberta — Two former employees of Parks Canada have been fined $2,000 each for entering the thermal springs inside the cave containing the world's only known population of a species of snail.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook explains that even minor movements in the water can upset the floating microbial mats on which the snails feed and lay their eggs. Chemicals such as insect repellents and deodorants on people's skin can also harm the snails and their habitat, as can changes in water levels.

Solar garden arises in vicinity of power plant

CRAIG, Colo. — Another solar garden has opened in Colorado, this one at Craig, located 68 kilometres west of Steamboat Springs. It has an oddity to it lacking in the solar gardens found at Breckenridge, west of Telluride, and other locations.

Unlike the others, this new solar farm is situated near the Craig Station, a series of three coal-burning power plants that can collectively produce 1,303 megawatts of electricity. The solar farm is nowhere near that robust. It can produce not quite a half-megawatt of generation, but only when the sun is out. All of Colorado's solar farms, roof-top solar, and other installations have a maximum capacity of 34 megawatts.

The mayor of Craig, Terry Carwile, who formerly worked in the coal industry, said he was happy to see the solar alongside the local plant. "I believe that we should be energy leaders in this part of the state," he said, in a story posted by the Craig Daily Press.

Innovation role recognized

TELLURIDE, Colo. – Telluride is getting new attention for its role in the electrical transformation that profoundly altered the 20th century, making way for computers and most everything else in modern life.

The innovation had to do with the transmission of electricity devised by Nicholas Tesla and George Westinghouse. Power from the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant was transmitted 4.8 kilometres to the Gold King Mine, in what is today Mountain Village. It was the first industrial application of alternating current.

Telluride, in turn, became the first place in the world to have streetlights powered by AC electricity.

The Telluride Daily Planet explains that Telluride is part of the Smithsonian Institute's Places of Invention program. Also featured is Hartford, Conn., for its precision manufacturing in the late 1800s; Hollywood, Calif., for its Technicolor innovation in the 1930s; and hip-hop in the Bronx of New York in the 1970s.

California's Silicon Valley gets a nod for the rise of the personal computer in the 1970s and 1980s, while Fort Collins, Colo., is getting recognized for clean-energy innovations now underway.

Carbon footprint of ski area is Bigfoot

RENO, Nev. — Squaw Valley has joined the ski areas out to reduce its carbon footprint in a program that looks very much like that from Aspen.

Get real, says D.J. Miller in a letter published in the Sierra Sun.

"Downhill skiing at Squaw is the equivalent of Bigfoot," Miller writes, pointing to the energy demands necessary to operate a ski area — not to mention sponsoring direct flights from London.

Miller further warns that given the trajectory of the climate, with warmer temperatures making even snowmaking difficult at Squaw until just before Christmas, resort owner KSL Partners might want to rethink its expansion plans at Squaw Valley.

Direct links to distant cities

RENO, Nev. — The direct flights into the Reno-Lake Tahoe airport continue to ramp up. The latest flight announcement comes from JetBlue, which says it will begin direct flights from New York City this summer.

The Sierra Sun identifies a "risk mitigation component" of the scheduled service, meaning that JetBlue is getting revenue guarantees, as is common for flights at many mountain destination airports in the Rocky Mountains.

Andy Wirth, the chief executive of Squaw Valley and vice-chairman of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority Board of Trustees, said that adding a key East Coast city is a crucial step in development of additional air service for the Truckee-Tahoe-Reno market.

"The advent of a non-stop flight is probably the single-most important air-service announcement we could make," he says. "New York City is the financial epicenter of the world. This flight, coupled with the Tesla announcement (of a battery factory in Reno), my phone is already blowing up. It's truly a fundamental shift in how people see our region."

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