Members of the Child family, from Maryland, and the Marshall family, from Chicago, all of them cousins, put on swim suits and Santa hats to go skiing Monday at Steamboat Ski Area. It wasn’t really that warm out — the National Weather Service reported the temperature was 39 degrees at 2:30 p.m. — but for holiday skiers at Steamboat Ski Area, it was all about fun in the sun while they prayed for more snow.

Photo by Tom Ross

Members of the Child family, from Maryland, and the Marshall family, from Chicago, all of them cousins, put on swim suits and Santa hats to go skiing Monday at Steamboat Ski Area. It wasn’t really that warm out — the National Weather Service reported the temperature was 39 degrees at 2:30 p.m. — but for holiday skiers at Steamboat Ski Area, it was all about fun in the sun while they prayed for more snow.

Steamboat skiers make most of sun

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— Is powder overrated?

It sounds like sacrilege. But an unscientific sampling of holiday skiers basking in the sun at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area on Monday met with general approval for current ski conditions.

“We came the week before Christmas last year, and there was a lot more snow,” said Beth Smith, who lives an hour south of Kansas City, Mo. “There are patches of ice on the most popular slopes. But they blew a lot of snow and pushed it all over the place, and it’s a lot better than it was Friday. It’s great. I love it.”

Ski area crews are adept at blowing manmade snow and distributing it over the slopes, but the reality is the resort has seen almost exactly 100 inches less snow as of Tuesday than it had by Dec. 27 last year. The ski area was reporting Monday that 70.5 inches of natural snow had fallen since it began counting in October, yielding a mid-mountain base of 24 inches. That contrasts with Dec. 27, 2010, when the cumulative snow total was already 172 inches and the base at mid-mountain was 56 inches.

The most recent snowfall at the ski area was the 7 inches that fell overnight into Dec. 22, when 40 mph wind gusts blew the powder around the mountain.

Despite Steamboat’s modest snow base, there aren’t many destination resorts in the country that can claim a competitive advantage over the slopes of Mount Werner. Vail was reporting 80 inches of seasonal snowfall but a mid-mountain base of just 18 inches Monday. The sprawling ski area 100 miles south of Steamboat had opened 1,510 of 5,289 acres while Steamboat is offering 1,962 acres of skiing and riding. The terrain missing from Vail’s portfolio included its unmatched back bowls, including Blue Sky Basin and China Bowl.

Telluride is reporting a 31-inch base with 89 percent of its intermediate terrain open and 44 percent of its advanced terrain.

Farther west, where a cluster of ski areas surround Lake Tahoe on the Nevada/California border, Heavenly Valley had an 18- to 24-inch base but only 192 of its 4,800 acres open. Squaw Valley was running 10 lifts on settled snow of 12 inches at the base of the mountain and only 3 inches above 8,200 feet.

Kevin Leonard, of England, flew all the way to San Antonio, Texas, to meet up with family, then drove 28 hours to get to Steamboat this week.

“It’s fantastic,” Leonard said. “With a bit more snow it would be better. But you make the best of what you’ve got. You can’t have a negative outlook.”

Ryan Turner, of Arlington, Texas, has been coming to Steamboat for five or six years and is enjoying a change of pace from powder skiing.

“Despite popular belief, there’s snow on the ground, and it’s groomed,” Turner said. “I like this kind of skiing. When there’s powder there are bumps underneath you can’t see, and they can throw you.”

Turner’s brother, Chris, agreed that he can go faster on his snowboard in the current snow conditions.

Brent and Roletta Himbury are visiting from Sydney, Australia, to ski some bumps with son, Josh, who is competing with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.

“We skied Tornado and you have to keep an eye out for rocks and trees, but it’s still good, fun skiing with family,” Brent Himbury said.

Ski areas in the northeastern U.S. are relying even more on manmade snow than the resorts in the Rockies. In New England, Killington, Vt., leads the way with 42 trails and a base of 16 to 24 inches after a season snowfall total of 41 inches. But wider temperature swings are making it tougher on ski areas in the northeast.

Sugarloaf, Maine, offers 180 acres of terrain and has received 2 inches of natural snow in the last seven days. The forecast on Monday called for a mix of rain and snow.

Steamboat’s forecast from the National Weather Service in Grand Junction called for two more days of partly sunny weather with highs continuing to reach the mid-30s before a little storm energy comes through the region Wednesday night and produces a 20 percent chance of snow with overnight lows in the teens. The chance of snow continues during the day on Thursday as temperatures are expected to rise to 42 degrees.

The number of holiday visitors continued to grow Monday as arriving flights at Yampa Valley Regional Airport were slightly overbooked at 102 percent of capacity with 1,095 arriving passengers. The number of people who boarded planes to leave the valley Monday was 818. YVRA saw 938 arrivals on Christmas Day and 352 departures.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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