Breaking through the opening-day first chair banner Wednesday are, from left, Scott Razo, Ryan Fleming, Rich Santos, Hanson Buchner, Tom Drew and ski instructor George Hurley. They were among the first skiers and riders to enjoy the slopes at Steamboat Ski Area as part of Scholarship Day.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Breaking through the opening-day first chair banner Wednesday are, from left, Scott Razo, Ryan Fleming, Rich Santos, Hanson Buchner, Tom Drew and ski instructor George Hurley. They were among the first skiers and riders to enjoy the slopes at Steamboat Ski Area as part of Scholarship Day.

Season opens with sunshine

Skiers, riders enjoy Scholarship Day at Steamboat Ski Area

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— During the winter, the Rohde family typically skis down to the gondola from their ski-in, ski-out home next to Bear Claw Condominiums. But on the Steamboat Ski Area's warm, sunny opening day Wednesday, they made the trek on foot.

"Today we had to walk," mom Suzanne Rohde said as she prepared to take her first run of the season. "There's just not enough snow."

The roar of snowmaking guns on the lower mountain - and the clatter of ongoing construction at One Steamboat Place - greeted the Rohde family and other Scholarship Day skiers and riders in the early morning sun, as the Steamboat Ski Area celebrated a festive opening day for the 2008-09 winter season.

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. employees passed out commemorative lanyards and granola bars in the Christie Peak Express lift line, and Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club representatives handed out candy in Gondola Square.

Proceeds from Wednesday's $20 lift tickets benefit the Winter Sports Club. Season passes will be accepted beginning today.

As a moguls skier with the Winter Sports Club, 15-year-old Aiden Rohde already had his lift ticket and was happy to ditch his family for a preview run while they waited in line.

"I'm looking forward to getting 500 inches again," Aiden said, hoping the Steamboat Ski Area will top last year's all-time snowfall record of 489 inches by closing day.

His 8-year-old sister, Aubrey, squinting in the bright sun at the Christie Peak Express lift, disagreed.

"I don't think so. Probably not as much as last year," she said.

"It's gonna dump, doll," dad John Rohde said. "I'm optimistic."

Although a light crowd of about 25 people was on hand for the first chairlifts at 8:30 a.m., skiers and riders continued to trickle into the base throughout the morning.

By early afternoon, the sounds of snowmaking and construction were replaced by Steamboat band Worried Men's tunes, including covers of The Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers and Willie Nelson.

A group of Steamboat natives sat at a table not far from the stage on the Bear River Bar & Grill deck. After five or six runs, the group was done participating in Scholarship Day, but they continued to celebrate it by enjoying the music and drink specials. They also had a great view of a temporary terrain park near the ski base, which proved entertaining while they admired a backflip or cringed at a crash.

Pascal Burnam and Jennifer Cantway said the park was the highlight of opening day. Burnam said it was the best opening day terrain park he had ever seen erected in Steamboat.

"Kudos to the little park," Cantway said. "If the park wasn't here, I don't think I would have had much fun."

Stefanie Tomaro said Steamboat's opening will help her save money on gas.

"It will be nice to ride here instead of having to drive somewhere else," she said.

Snow in the forecast

The Christie Peak Express and Preview lifts ferried skiers and riders to the 10 open trails Wednesday: Desperado, for lessons; upper Boulevard; Headwall North; Lil' Rodeo, including some of the terrain park; Preview; lower Right-O-Way; Stampede; Jess' Cut Off; Sitz; and See Ya.

"For the conditions the guys have had to work with, the snowmakers and the groomers have done an amazing job," Ski Corp. spokesman Mike Lane said.

Vogue and See Me are the next priorities for the ski area, though expanding the open terrain obviously depends on weather in the next few weeks - natural snowfall, as well as having conditions conducive to artificial snowmaking, Lane said.

It is unclear when skiers and riders will be able to access Thunderhead Peak, the lack of which 10-year-old Bethany Morton said was disappointing Wednesday.

"I wish the gondola was open," said Bethany, in town for Thanksgiving from Atlanta with her family.

But after a two-year skiing drought, Bethany could still barely contain her excitement to get on the slopes.

"We'll be back at Christmas, February and spring break," mom Kathleen Morton said. "Better than school, right, kids?"

Steamboat resident Ian Stamp, 14, had two major directives for Wednesday, his first day on skis since last winter.

"Definitely hit the park, definitely fall a couple times," he said.

Jacob Dybala, of Steamboat, took some time off work to get in a few runs. He said he was excited for opening day and the season ahead.

"Could use a little more snow, but you gotta do with what you got," he said.

Dybala and others could be in luck as the week progresses. There is a 50 percent chance of snow on Mount Werner today, according to the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. A 30 to 50 percent chance for snow on the mountain continues through Saturday.

From test-run to real deal

Scholarship Day started out as a "test-run" for the ski area, which once charged $5 for lift tickets benefiting the Winter Sports Club and in time has evolved into the "real opening day" for the Steamboat Ski Area, Vice President of Mountain Operations Doug Allen said.

Scholarship Day typically brings in $20,000 to $70,000 for Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, which gives roughly $50,000 in scholarships benefiting 60 to 80 families each year, Executive Director Rick DeVos said.

"It's influenced by the weather. If you have deep powder all the way to the top, we get a huge crowd," DeVos said. "In years like this, it's lighter."

With its hosting of Scholarship Day, training time on the mountain, special grooming requests and ski passes for Winter Sports Club staff, Ski Corp.'s assistance is valued at $500,000 each year, DeVos said.

"We owe Steamboat a ton for what they do for us," DeVos said.

- Brandon Gee contributed reporting to this article.

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