Mountain News: 

River melting, roads treacherous in Banff

BANFF, Alberta — The storm that drenched Whistler also created odd and even treacherous conditions in the Bow River Valley from Canmore to Lake Louise. The weather had turned from intensely cold to rain that froze when hitting the TransCanada and other highways. Even snowplows spreading sand couldn’t stay upright.

The valley was drowned by more than 18 millimetres of rain on Jan. 17-21, with temperatures right at freezing.

All this caused the snowpack at ski areas to shrink, and in several cases, for the ski areas to close because of closed roads. The highway north from Banff was closed for a time, as was the TransCanada Highway in what the Rocky Mountain Outlook says was the greatest series of road closures in at least 10 years. As well, the rain created extreme avalanche conditions.

Meanwhile, melting ice in the Bow River forced cancellation of what would have been the 30 th annual Mountain Madness Relay Race. The event calls for competitors to cross that and other waterways.

"The river is just too unstable right now," explained Cathy Sinclair-Smyth, Banff’s special events co-ordinator. It’s a rare occurrence in this part of the world, but we’ve seen a 50-degree temperature difference this week. It’s extraordinary. It’s insane," she said, speaking Friday, Jan. 21.

However, it’s not the first time the event was cancelled, as no winners were named in either 1991 or 1992.

Snowpack disappearing

KETCHUM, Idaho — Already subpar snowpacks in the Pacific Northwest have been shriveling in the embrace of record-high temperatures. At the summit of Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain, the 100-inch snowpack had shrunk to 50 inches in three weeks of January.

While that left the snowpack in the Ketchum area at 77 per cent of average, it was even worse in other parts of Idaho, reports the Idaho Mountain Express.

This mid-winter thaw has been so uncommonly warm that some ski areas, including Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain, had to close. In Washington, climatologist Philip Mote said he does not ever recall snow melting at an elevation of 6,200 feet during the middle of winter.

Inversion in Sierra Nevada

LAKE TAHOE, Calif./Nev. — Some people in the Lake Tahoe area were getting down in the dumps recently after fog moved in on the paws of a herd of cats’ feet. The fog settled in for seven days, causing some to think they had been relocated to San Francisco.

During the temperature inversion, reports the Tahoe World, 14,000-foot peaks in the Sierra Nevada were as warm or warmer than the valleys of 4,000 feet in western Nevada.

Foreigners are back

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — It started last year, but one of the bigger stories of the year at ski areas in Colorado is the return of tourists from foreign countries. It’s happening in Aspen and Vail and also Steamboat and probably elsewhere in the U.S.

Foreign tourists are at the highest mark in a decade in Steamboat, says Andy Wirth, vice president of marketing for the American Skiing Company’s resorts in the West. Even including the locals with season passes, foreign tourists account for almost 10 per cent of skier visits at Steamboat, he told The Steamboat Pilot.

The reason foreigners are skiing U.S. resorts is the weakened dollar in international exchange rates. The dollar has dropped in value 20 per cent in just the last year and a quarter.

All this has Jeff Thredgold, a corporate economist for Vectra Bank Colorado, predicting more foreign investment in resort real estate. He also predicts a renewed surge of Californians moving to Colorado as Colorado’s economy, while lagging behind those of other states in the Rocky Mountains, gets back to its usual robust proportions.

Although the Federal Reserve Board is raising interest rates, which is expected to cool the hot real estate market, he does not see that effort cooling mountain real estate sales.

"Sales of real estate in places like Aspen, Park City, Steamboat and Keystone have little to do with interest rates," he said. "It’s very much about exercising of stock options." He said he’s optimistic about the stock market’s prospects this year, with repercussions for real estate in resort communities.

Aspen wants X Games forever

ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen wants to host the Winter X Games permanently, says David Perry, senior vice president of the Aspen Skiing Co. Aspen has the event contractually locked through 2007, but Perry told a recent gathering that he believes Aspen can get the games – now in their ninth year – far longer.

One of Aspen’s virtues is that it has four ski areas, which means it can allocate one ski area, Buttermilk, to the preparation and then the event for a total of three weeks without hurting the company’s income stream.

The event has been steadily growing. ESPN estimates that 66,500 spectators attended the four-day event last year, up from 58,700 and 36,300 in the two preceding years. This year, in the days before the event, Aspen and Snowmass were booked to 90 per cent of capacity.

However, Perry warned that if Aspenites want to hold onto the X Games far into the future, hoteliers must avoid the temptation to gouge attendees, particularly the ESPN crews, reports The Aspen Times.

Mammoth home, airport issues

MAMMOTH, Calif. — If high real estate prices are the evidence of a ski area becoming a world-class destination resort, then Mammoth is inching its way there. The local newspaper, the Mammoth Times, recently published a press release announcing that a new record price, $3.6 million, had been set for a home.

That’s not exactly Aspen and Vail prices, of course, but then Mammoth is relatively new at this business of top-end economics. Located a five- to six-hour drive from Los Angeles, the resort is busy on weekends but quiet during the mid-week.

To become more like the destination resorts, Mammoth is doing two things that all big resorts do. First, it is building real estate – lots of it. Intrawest, which is now the majority owner of the ski area, is putting up three base villages and projects to deliver 2,300 units of housing when all is done.

Most destination resorts also have major airports close by, or at least within an hour or two. Mammoth wants one of those, too, but things have not gone well. First, environmental groups sued to block the project, and were joined by the California state government. Lately, even the sugar-daddy for most of this work, the Federal Aviation Administration, has grumbled and threatened to divert funds to other projects.

"We are really hamstrung by this litigation," said Mayor Rick Wood at a recent town meeting. "And what’s more, we have been warned – not told – that more is coming after this."

More threatening to these grand plans than no-growth environmentalists could be the design of the airport itself, reports the Mammoth Times. A resident, Owen Malory, a former systems engineer, says there is not enough land at the airport to safely accommodate the 757s that the resort officials want to see in a program of direct flights from distant cities, similar to what most other destination resorts have. Malory’s concerns, says the Times, are essentially the same as those indicated by the FAA.

What is unclear is how this idea got so far along – this has been years in the making – if the safety is so impaired.

10,000 feet not enough

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — A district court judge has come down on the side of Teton County in the case of a couple who expanded their already massive log home beyond what county regulations permitted. The judge fined the couple, Thomas and Carol-Ann Crow, $363,000.

The case, explains the Jackson Hole News & Guide, goes back to the mid-1990s. The couple built their house, but then wanted to expand it. They were told that county regulations limited homes to 10,000 square feet of total floor area and 8,000 square feet of habitable space. They expanded as they wished anyway, to a total of 13,000 square feet of total floor area.

The judge said the Crows failed to prove that the term "habitable space" was voided because of its vagueness. He also ruled that the county can regulate the use and size of interior space with a completed dwelling.

The couple may yet be required to remove the offending portion of the house. It contains a bedroom and several bathrooms.

Vail real estate booming

VAIL, Colo. — In Vail-dominated Eagle County last year, $2.26 billion in real estate sales were recorded, besting the old record set in 2000 by 133 per cent.

In the highest of the high end, a 10,000-square-foot home located in Bachelor Gulch, a project within Beaver Creek, went for $10.1 million, while a slightly smaller house in the same neighbourhood sold for $8.5 million. In all, the county had 10 sales that went for more than $4 million. Still, while the Vail area does more total real estate, the Aspen area has pricier digs, with some 10 homes selling for more than $10 million.

The hottest action in Eagle County, however, was in the so-called entry-level homes, which the Vail Daily defined as homes priced at less than $500,000. Altogether the average sales price for the year in Eagle County was $676,000.

Truckee-Squaw home prices rise

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Prices skyrocketed nearly everywhere in the ski towns and valley last year. Among the highest was in the area of Truckee, Squaw Valley, and Alpine Meadows, where the median home price jumped by 24 per cent. The same appreciation was also noted in Tahoe City, although the rest of the Lake Tahoe area appreciated much more slowly.

With the median home prices hitting $540,000, many of the locals in the Truckee area are cashing out and moving to more outlying communities, where they can ratchet down their mortgages, reports the Sierra Sun. And the buyers? At least some of them are people who rent in the Bay Area and who are buying their first home in anticipation of retirement.

No guarantees

REVELSTOKE, B.C. — For those who think that an avalanche beacon represents safety against death by avalanche, yet more testimony to the contrary was offered during January in the Selkirk Mountains near Revelstoke.

There, a 20-year tradition turned tragic when Stephen M. Butts, the principal owner of a large real estate firm in Telluride, died in an avalanche. The annual trip to Canada had begun when Butts was still living in Aspen, and had grown to include a large number of people from both Aspen and Telluride. Skiing immediately before him was John Pryor, mayor of Telluride.

Snow conditions had been rated high to extreme in the Revelstoke area, sufficient to force cancellation of skiing the previous day. But guides decided the risk was sufficiently low if they kept to the trees. All wore transceivers and carried shovels, and the Revelstoke Times Review said they also were equipped with Avalung, a new device that, if employed before the snow stops, allows a person to continue breathing while buried under the snow.

Several people had skied the run previously before the avalanche struck. The companions and guides of Butts found and then dug him out within five minutes, and a helicopter with medical gear was on the scene within 10 minutes, but all to no avail.

An autopsy later indicated that he had died of a fractured spine, most likely causing his immediate death as he was dragged through stands of small trees.

Butts had been recruited from Aspen in 1982 by Ron Allred, then CEO of the Telluride ski company. Ironically, Butts had recently restructured Telluride Properties to allow brokers to buy in, freeing him to take more time off.

However, putting a silver spin on it, the Telluride mayor, Pryor, told The Telluride Watch that Butts died while doing what he loved most. "Honestly, he died with his best friends, skiing his favourite run, while helicopter skiing, which is one of the greatest thrills in life."

Hemingway still controversial

KETCHUM, Idaho — Forty-four years after he killed himself with a shotgun in his home in Ketchum, the novelist Ernest Hemingway has been prominently in the news. At issue is whether the house will be opened to the public.

Although living primarily in Cuba and the Florida Keyes, Hemingway had spent portions of 22 years in Ketchum, where he fished and hunted. Beset by mental illness in later years, he tried to kill himself several times and finally succeeded in 1961.

Several neighbours and others scorn the idea of making the house a public museum, and argue that the house was relatively unimportant in the writer’s life, Hemingway scholar, Martin Peterson, in a piece published in the Idaho Mountain Express, argues otherwise. He says that Hemingway did important pieces of writing in Ketchum, including portions of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

There are other arguments – that Hemingway drank a lot, that he didn’t get along with members of his family, and so on. The scholar acknowledges all this, but insists the house is worth saving.

Finally, there is the matter of the suicide. "But that doesn’t make the house any less worthy of appreciation and respect than the cemetery (in Ketchum) where Hemingway is buried." Hemingway should be remembered for his life that was "generally lived well and enthusiastically."

Tsunami relief efforts continue

DURANGO, Colo. — The efforts to raise money to aid victims of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean are continuing in ski towns cross the West. Among the many recent efforts have been something in Durango in which restaurants came together in something called "EAT for the People." The participating restaurants donated 10 per cent of their total sales. That and other efforts raised $20,0000 in Durango, reports the Durango Telegraph.

Rags to riches story ends

ASPEN, Colo. — One of Aspen’s most prominent movers-and-shakers, an individual both loathed and loved, has died at the age of 59 of kidney cancer.

Harley Baldwin had, by his own account, shown up in Aspen in 1968 with nothing more than a military deferment and $1,200 in his pocket. He began in business in an extremely small way, hawking crepes out of the Popcorn Wagon, but somehow within several years found the capital to become a partner in a real estate development about 25 miles away. Within three years of showing up in Aspen, he was buying rundown downtown real estate that he then converted into trendy shops.

Later, among his various ventures, he operated both an art gallery and the members-only Caribou Club. He was, reports The Aspen Times, "both credited and reviled for his role in the resort’s transformation into a high-end shopping mecca and for furthering the town’s glitzy image." Baldwin, however, was unapologetic and downplayed his influence, suggesting he was simply "ahead of the curve."

He later spent much of his time in New York City, where he and his partner, Richard Edwards, had a home overlooking Central Park. He also taught a seminar at Columbia University. "One of the things I try to teach is, it’s good to make some money; it’s really quite thrilling. But you’ve got to enjoy your life," he told The Aspen Times in an interview several years ago. "It’s really important to teach people to create the life that they want to live."

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