Mountain News: Tallest ski area short on funds 

REVELSTOKE, B.C. - Revelstoke Mountain Resort can now claim to have the most vertical of any ski area in North America. But will the lifts that allow that boast continue operating?

That was the question several months ago when the Denver-based majority owner, Don Simpson, concluded that his pockets were not nearly deep enough to pay the expenses of the new ski area, now in its second year of operations.

Real estate sales had gone well, yielding $130 million, but a big ski area requires massive amounts of money to operate. Skier visits last year were still below 90,000. Although located along the TransCanada Highway, Revelstoke is still several hours from Calgary, and air connections are far weaker than is commonly found to major ski areas.

At that point, the Vancouver-based Gaglardi family, agreed to step up. They have something called the Northland Properties Corp. The company's Tom Gaglardi recently meet with community members in Revelstoke.

"It would be tough to overemphasize the financial difficulty the resort was in during the fall," Gaglardi told the audience. Nor, he added later, is the resort out of the woods.

The problem for Revelstoke Mountain Resort is that it has to sell real estate or lift tickets, and it's not in a good position to do either one. Gaglardi said the majority owners are spending millions of dollars every month, and do intend to move forward with two new lodges at the base area this summer, despite the fact that the real estate market has "evaporated to basically zero."

In selling the ski product, he sees Revelstoke marketing to Calgary more heavily, but also to Australia and the United Kingdom. He asked for assistance from the community in welcoming tourists. He said he hoped the ski operations could become profitable within three to five years. "Really the only way to pay and continue for the resort is on the real estate side," he said.

This year, while other resorts are seeing reduced visitation, Revelstoke actually hopes for an increase, to 130,00 visits. Galgardi said the break-even point for the resort is at about 250,000 skier days annually.

Snow researchers look for dust
SILVERTON, Colo. - It will soon be time for Chris Landry to start looking for dust in the mountains of Colorado.

Already, a layer of dust was deposited on the snow in the San Juan Mountains and some other areas of Colorado. That was in mid-December, but the dustiest months are during spring, when storms lift dirt from the deserts of the Southwest and carry them several hundred miles.

Landry runs the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, which recently held a grand-opening in new digs in Silverton. Unlike most of the Victorian-era mining town, the building is relatively new, constructed in 2000 by a custom furniture and cabinet-maker.

At 4,400 square feet, it's big enough for an office, with space for workshops and even living quarters for Landry. In the past, Landry sometimes held workshops in a shed that was neither heated nor lit. "Looking back, it's amazing how much we got done in that shed," he says.

Landry, who is in his 50s, is tall and lanky, and absolutely comfortable in snow. July is another matter. "Summer is to be endured," he muttered in the midst of one heat spell in Silverton when the temperature got into - steel yourself for this - the mid-80s.

Landry grew up at Whitefish, Mont., where his father, a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division, and his mother managed Whitefish Mountain Resort, then called Big Mountain. Later, living in Carbondale, Colo., and working in Aspen, he became known as one of the nation's top extreme skiers, although this was long before "extreme skiing" became a branding category.

Nearly a decade ago he returned to college, getting a master's degree from Montana State in snow studies, and then in 2002 set up shop in Silverton. What he and his boosters had in mind was a research station that could assist scientists. To that end, he got permission from the U.S. Forest Service to establish what amounts to an outdoor laboratory, to take measurements at two sites in the surrounding San Juan Mountains relatively unaffected by localized sources, such as roads or snowmobiles.

One of his first major clients and collaborators was Tom Painter, now from the University of Utah, who wanted to test the proposition of how much snow that is blown in by storms affects the rate of runoff of the snowpack. His conclusions: a lot. The dirt in the snow absorbs heat, melting the snow. Pure snow reflects the sun's rays to a much greater extent. Painter's study found that runoff may come several weeks earlier because of the dust.

Landry and associates now have contracts with eight major water agencies in Colorado - from Durango to Denver, and from Glenwood Springs to Loveland - to look for layers of dust in the snowpack, to better predict the runoff. They will be sampling sites in the Front Range at Loveland and Berthoud passes; plus other sites near Taylor Park Reservoir (near Crested Butte); Wolf Creek Pass and Slumgullion Pass (near Lake City); at McClure Pass (near Aspen), and in northern Colorado in the area between Winter Park and Steamboat Springs.

"We're quite excited about how this has evolved. It has gone from basic research to a fully applied science in a very short time," Landry said.

At the grand opening, he was asked why snow is white. He explained that it isn't always - that if you peer into a hole of snow, it's likely to have a bluish hue, the result of the light-transmitting properties of snow.

Of course, dig down into a snowpack in spring, and the snow might be brown or black. There's likely to be a layer of dust under that carpet of white.

Bankers cancel trip
PARK CITY, Utah - JPMorgan Chase, the giant banking company, has canceled two corporate outings to the Deer Valley resort in Park City.

The group had been booked at the Stein Eriksen Lodge, where listed room rates run from $750 to more than $2,000 per night. The bank had booked a retreat for 103 people. The loss is a major dent in Park City's economy. "I think who suffers the most were the line employees - the bellmen, housekeepers," Jan Raio, the director of sales and marketing at the lodge, told the Park Record.

"It's not the first group, especially the financial group, we've seen cancel," said Bill Malone, chief of the Park City Chamber/Bureau.

Dark days for real estate
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - The end-of-year real estate reports were not unexpected. From Aspen to Steamboat Springs to Vail, the reports at the major resort areas are about the same: 40 to 55 per cent less dollar volume was recorded in 2008, compared with the previous year.

In Steamboat Springs and surrounding areas, dollar volume for last year was 45.7 per cent of the preceding year. Altogether, $725 million in sales were reported, according to Land Title Guarantee Co.

In the Vail market, sales were down 52 per cent last year, with a final tally of $2.75 billion. In the Aspen market, sales were down 46 per cent in dollar volume, to $1.37 billion. The Glenwood Springs/Garfield County market - down-valley from both Aspen and Vail - had similar numbers: 51 per cent less volume, down to $723 million.

The number of transactions was also down significantly in all these markets. However, even when dollar volume had been increasing in recent years, there had been fewer transactions. One year when the Vail/Eagle Valley market increased 10 per cent in dollar volume, there had been fewer transactions.

In Teton County, Wyo., the number of transactions was down by 50 per cent. No drop in dollar volume was reported by the Jackson Hole News & Guide. But the newspaper notes that transactions had fallen 19 per cent during the dot-com bubble burst of 2000 and another 22 per cent in the fallout of 9/11.

In Utah, the Park City market was still at $1 billion for 2008, but that was the lowest since 2004, noted the Park Record. The number of transactions during the fourth quarter was the lowest since 1992. Still, real estate agents tell the Park Record they think it can't get any worse - and will soon get better. "I'm seeing the market going from being stuck to picking up in small increments," said Jess Reid, of Jess Reid Real Estate. "It's frozen, but it will thaw out," said Jim Lewis, of Summit Sotheby's. "It's always darkest before the dawn, and it's pretty dark now."

In Aspen and Vail, the contraction in sales has yielded a similar contraction in sales offices. The greater upheaval was in Aspen, where a real estate company dropped its franchise for Aspen Sotheby's International Realty. The franchise agreement is being acquired by another firm, Morris and Frywald Real Estate, a firm founded in 2000 that has grown to almost 50 brokers. Citing the firm's website, The Aspen Times reports the firm did $242 million in sales last year.

Pivotal men remembered
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - The title of a book, "Let us Now Praise Great Men," comes to mind in describing Steamboat Springs last week. It was a week in which three of the people most important in creation of winter skiing at Steamboat, both as sport and as business, were in the news. All are now dead.

The first praise had long been planned, as it was the weekend of Winter Carnival, the community's annual celebration of ski jumping and other snow-based skills. The event had been started by Carl Howelsen, a Norwegian bricklayer who arrived in Denver and then followed the train, first to Hot Sulphur Springs and then, in 1913, to Steamboat Springs, where he demonstrated the art of ski jumping. He returned to Norway in 1921, never to return.

A statue of Howelsen was unveiled Friday evening, his son, Leif Hovelsen, 86, in attendance.

A few hours before that unveiling, community icon John Fetcher died. He was 97, and he lived not only an extraordinarily long life, but also from the accounts of the Steamboat Pilot & Today, an extraordinarily good life. Fetcher had a pivotal role in creating the big ski area, but also restoring the ski jump on the little ski area, called Howelsen Hill. However, he was most proud of helping build water projects to guard against drought.

Fetcher was a Harvard-trained engineer who learned to ski as a youth in Switzerland, worked in Europe and then in Philadelphia before he and his brother bought a ranch northwest of Steamboat Springs in 1949. In 1958, he began lending his engineering skills to the creation of a ski area on what was then called Storm Mountain, now called Mt. Werner. He was vice president of the ski company from 1959 to 1962, and then was president from 1962 to 1971. However, the next year, he formed a local group to raise $13 million to rebuild the ski jump that had been created by Carl Howelsen. The ski jump had burned down.

But Fetcher told the Steamboat Pilot & Today last year that it was his work in creating water storage of which he was most proud. He had played a key role in building a reservoir in the late 1970s on the headwaters of the Yampa River.

"In 1977, the year of the terrible drought, some of the ranchers in Yampa couldn't take any water out of the river because it wasn't flowing. They didn't put a single bale of hay and had to sell off their cattle. Since Yamcolo (the reservoir) filled, we've had adequate irrigation supplies for all the ranching community."

In eulogizing Fetcher, the Pilot's Tom Ross points out that Fetcher continued to hold his job at a local water district until January, and as late as last year was a regular in a local tennis league.

"John Fetcher was far from a simple man, but he had a gift for making things plain and a special talent for getting things done. And he did it all with good humor," said Ross. "Routt County is not likely to see another like him."

Perhaps an even more eloquent eulogy came from a county commissioner, Doug Monger. "He wasn't a greedy person; he wasn't self-centred. He lived for the community."

Two days later, yet another pivotal figure in the community died. James Wood Temple, credited as the visionary who pioneered the first ski runs on Storm Mountain, was 82. He had grown up on a cattle ranch along the Colorado-Wyoming border, and after World War II had been a ski instructor in Utah at the Brighton ski area and then became an avalanche expert while serving as assistant director of the ski patrol at Idaho's Sun Valley ski area.

But he wanted to get back to Steamboat, and in 1955 began leading dedicated skiers and U.S. Forest Service employees up his favored mountain. Among them was Buddy Werner. He founded the Storm Mountain Ski Corporation in 1948, and as president and chairman of the board, began clearing trails that summer.

Hens, but no roosters
HAILEY, Idaho - Hens but no dawn-announcing roosters would be allowed in Hailey, located down-valley from Ketchum and Sun Valley, according to new regulations drawn up by town planners. The planners are proposing a variety of measures that collectively seek to reduce the environmental impact of the town.

One measure, for example, would allow so-called mother-in-law housing units on otherwise single-family lots, delivering more affordable housing without causing the town - the place where Sun Valley's so-called worker bees tend to live - to sprawl.

Another proposal would allow rooftop-mounted solar panels anywhere in the city, while free-standing solar arrays - such as might be erected in backyards or vacant lots - would have get conditional-use permits.

The proposal, reports the Idaho Mountain Express, would allow three chickens per household, which is considered sufficient to egg on a family of four. As well, the chickens would consume nine pounds of kitchen waste each per month. However, those experienced with chickens require plenty of wire, to keep foxes and dogs out of the coops.

Cab driver packing heat
WINTER PARK, Colo. - It sounds almost like a man-bites-dog story. The Sky-Hi Daily News tells of a taxi driver who pulled a handgun on two men whom he had just transported to their hotel. The cabbie blamed the passengers for escalating the disagreement over the price into near violence, and the passengers laid all the blame on the 26-year-old driver. Law enforcement seems to think the driver shouldn't have been brandishing the pistol.

Does seeding work?
VAIL, Colo. - Lots of people get religion when the bullets start flying or the lightning bolts start striking. When drought winters occur, the religion is cloud-seeding. After the big drought of 1977 left Colorado ski areas with soup lines instead of customers, Vail and most other ski areas starting paying to have clouds seeded.

But when the big snows returned, most ski areas and water districts dropped out. Not so Vail and Beaver Creek. They were still seeding clouds when the next big drought rolled around in 2002, and were soon joined by many other ski areas and districts.

Does it really work? That's always the question. In fact, there was some scientifically reviewed experimentation, using control groups, dating to the 1960s for winter cloud-seeding in Colorado. Still, the record is less than compelling.

Now, the Vail Mountaineer reports a new study that claims proof that cloud-seeding has increased the water in the snowpack on Colorado's Western Slope up to 20 per cent this year. The study cost $175,000, but the newspaper offered no details about who paid for the study, who conducted it, or whether it was peer-reviewed.

Jury remains out
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. - Usually, when the U.S. Forest Service agrees to take on a project for environmental review, the verdict is already in. All the rest is more or less a formality.

That was the case in Vail's Category III ski area expansion of the 1990s, and probably any number of ski expansions. Before the Forest Service accepts a project, it seeks evidence that the proponent has broad community acceptance. Without it, the project is unlikely to move forward. But rarely does the environmental review yield grounds for a veto.

But history is no prelude, Forest Service officials assure Crested Butte town officials, who remain opposed to a major ski area expansion at Crested Butte onto neighboring Snodgrass Mountain. A project in Santa Fe, N.M., was denied after a review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

In the Crested Butte case, the Forest Service is still awaiting evidence that the ski area owners, Tim and Diane Mueller, have gained the critical community acceptance. A letter from Charlie Richmond, the supervisor of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest, says as much.

Steve Glaser, of the High Country Citizens Alliance, said the NEPA environmental evaluation does not kill process. "If you want to kill a project, you have to find a violation of a law, not the NEPA process," he says.

Often, the Forest Service has been sued for violating NEPA process. When it does, the Forest Service revisits the process, goes through the process differently, but the ultimate decision is not changed.

Bighorns transplanted
KREMMLING, Colo. - Almost anyway you measure it, Gore Canyon is a rugged place. The Colorado River flows through it, the biggest single drop of the river's flow between Rocky Mountain National Park and its end at the Sea of Cortez. It used to have whitewater that most guides said was unraftable. That has changed, with the arrival of self-bailing rafts and, perhaps just as important, boaters with elevated derring-do.

The walls of the canyon are not quite as imposing, but steep just the same. Now, they are home once again to bighorn sheep, which existed in the canyon until about a century ago. The Sky-Hi Daily News reported that the Colorado Division of Wildlife transplanted 14 sheep into the canyon, which is located nearly equidistant between Steamboat Springs, Winter Park, Breckenridge and Vail.

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