Gondola rope reaches end of line
Doug Allen, vice president of mountain operations for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., confirmed Thursday that the ski area plans to replace the 21-year-old haul rope on its gondola. But Andy Wirth, executive vice president of sales and marketing and chief marketing officer for Intrawest, said emphatically that the planned replacement of the 60-ton wire rope, which pulls gondola cabins to Thunderhead Peak, was not a factor in Thursday's decision to delay opening of the ski area.
"It's inaccurate to say the replacement of the haul rope was a factor in our revised opening schedule," Wirth said.
Allen said rough and irregular stretches on the rope system have created "operational hassles," but no safety concerns. If Steamboat had sufficient snow to open as scheduled Nov. 21, a contingency plan would have been used to replace the haul rope, he said.
"There is no safety issue with the gondola," Allen said. "There is no loss of metal area that would make it unsafe. It's a wonderful piece of machinery and has run for 54,000 hours and still runs like a clock. It's one of the most important lifts in the nation."
The gondola would have run during the Thanksgiving holiday period, Allen said. After the holiday weekend, skier transport to Thunderhead would have been re-routed via the opening of the new Christie Peak Express and Thunderhead Express chairlifts until the gondola was ready to run again.
Now, Allen said, he anticipates both Christie Peak Express and the gondola will open Nov. 30.
Allen said replacing the gondola haul rope has been anticipated for some time and is being done one year earlier than planned.
"We're not replacing the haul rope because of safety issues," Allen said. "We're replacing the rope so we can have smooth operations."
When one of the detachable grips on a gondola car gripped onto an irregular area of the rope last winter, Allen said, it tripped a safety switch that necessitated running the gondola in reverse until it re-entered the terminal and the grip released. The car was then repositioned at a smooth spot on the cable.
"Over the last couple of years, it was happening as often as several times a day," Allen said.
Wirth said the gondola haul rope was taken down and inspected last year by Knight Equipment Company, the same company that recently spliced the new Christie Peak Express haul rope and will splice the new gondola rope.
Allen said the new haul rope was shipped from the manufacturer in Switzerland in September and was due to arrive Nov. 2, but as of Nov. 6 was still in the port of Savannah, Ga., held up by the Georgia Department of Transportation. The rope finally left Georgia on Thursday bound for Steamboat.
When the old rope finally comes down, it will have traveled a great distance, Allen said.
"Based on 54,000 hours at 11 miles an hour, we figured it's been to the moon and back and is on its way back to the moon again," he said.
Steamboat Springs For the second time in seven years, mild November weather has caused the Steamboat Ski Area to push back its opening day.
The traditional opening Scholarship Day benefit for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club has been delayed from Nov. 21 to Nov. 30, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. officials said Thursday. All season and value passes will be honored beginning Dec. 1.
"The warm weather patterns we've experienced lately have made snowmaking a challenge," said Andy Wirth, executive vice president of sales and marketing and chief marketing officer for Intrawest, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.'s parent company. "Snowmaking crews, which were busy making snow last night, are ready to take full advantage of colder temperatures and conditions; and, as we've seen in the past, everything can change in a matter of days."
The last time Steamboat delayed its opening day was in 2001. Opening day was delayed until Nov. 30 that year, too, but heavy snow began to fall almost as soon as the postponement was announced.
The opening of Vail Mountain also was delayed Thursday because of a lack of snow. Originally scheduled to open today, Vail will now open Wednesday.
Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this week that early winter snowfall in Northern Colorado could depend on the positioning of a high-pressure system associated with the La NiÃ±a phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean. Current long-range forecast models show Northwest Colorado has almost equal chances of average, below-average and above-average precipitation through February.
Wirth said Thursday unseasonably warm and dry weather this month was the only consideration in choosing to postpone opening day. The construction projects wrapping up on the Headwall trail at the base of Mount Werner were not a factor, he said.
"This was based on one factor, and that was the weather," Wirth said. "The weather to date combined with the short-term forecast doesn't give us any information that a normally scheduled opening would be advisable."
Wirth said nine-day forecasts give ski area officials reason for optimism. Chances of snow in Steamboat Springs are forecast through next week.
Pray for cold
Wirth said the ski area's management team, including Vice President of Mountain Operations Doug Allen, conferred Monday and did the math. Even if the Yampa Valley had experienced ideal snowmaking conditions beginning Monday and continuing through the originally scheduled opening day of Nov. 21, there would not have been sufficient time to build the necessary snow base, Wirth said.
Steamboat's snow guns have operated for three sessions this fall, including Thursday morning, when the plumes of snow were visible just below Thunderhead Peak on the Vagabond trail, ski area spokesman Mike Lane said. The first snowmaking session of autumn was overnight Nov. 3 into Nov. 4, when modest amounts of snow were produced on the Betwixt and Between trails. Daytime highs in the 50s and 60s eroded what little snow was made.
As much as skiers and riders could now be wishing for a powder dump, ski area officials are probably praying for a series of cold clear nights.
"At this stage of the game, we'd lean toward colder temperatures," Wirth confirmed.
Bob Milne, president of Steamboat Resorts, was leaning toward the pack of Rolaids he keeps in his desk on Thursday afternoon.
"We've been through this before, but it's never easy," Milne said of the delayed opening. "It's probably the right decision given that it's 45 degrees out right now."
Milne's staff was busy calling a list of 150 reservations booked into resort condominiums during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Guests were being told they are welcome to cancel with full refunds of their deposits.
"Surprisingly, a fair number of them are saying they're coming," Milne said. "We started calling the people who are traveling from out of state. Of our owners who were planning to come, all of them are still coming."
Steamboat Resorts plans to welcome its first college ski group of the season Dec. 3. That group is likely to be more sensitive to snow conditions, Milne said.
Dedicated local skier Kevin Olsen, who typically logs 100 days a winter, said he'll continue to make the most of his Intrawest Rocky Mountain Ultimate Pass by skiing Copper Mountain until Steamboat opens.
"I think about skiing every day of the year," Olsen said. "It's always a bummer (when Steamboat's opening is delayed), but I've put down five days at Copper already. If the rides are open, I'm there."
Chris Smith, who has operated Powder Pursuits snowboard shop in Ski Time Square for 22 years, said his hope is that Steamboat's holiday visitors will spend more time shopping with the lifts closed.
"I usually stress out until the day it starts snowing," Smith said. "This year, I'm not going to stress out."
He had booked snowboard rentals for a group of students from the University of Colorado and spoke with them this week. They plan on coming to Steamboat despite the lack of snow, and Smith will host an equipment-buying event for them.
Wirth said like Steamboat Resorts, Ski Corp. is actively communicating with its clientele and about the snow situation. The resort has reached a crucial point in the annual vacation reservations calendar, as skiers and riders continue to book December and January trips while others begin to book deeper into February and March.
"The next 45 days represents a very important period when we experience a confluence of demand," Wirth said.
If the weather cooperates in historical fashion, he hopes to have a brighter snow message to relay to Steamboat visitors.
"It is what it is," Wirth said. "We have a savvy customer base and we've all seen it turn around fast in Steamboat in the past. We'll continue to be forthright with our guests."