A snowcat pushes a pile of snow around the base area at Steamboat Ski Area on Friday. Pushing piles of snow isn’t the most efficient way to handle it, but it was the only option this spring as a dry season and warm weather combined to test ski area slope maintenance crews. They managed to keep the mountain open to its planned Closing Day.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

A snowcat pushes a pile of snow around the base area at Steamboat Ski Area on Friday. Pushing piles of snow isn’t the most efficient way to handle it, but it was the only option this spring as a dry season and warm weather combined to test ski area slope maintenance crews. They managed to keep the mountain open to its planned Closing Day.

Crews help Steamboat Ski Area survive to Closing Day

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Slope maintenance director Frank Case drives a snowcat Friday at Steamboat Ski Area. Case, a lifelong resident of Steamboat Springs, said he’s never seen anything like this year’s weather. To keep the mountain operating, his team pulled snow from stashes like terrain park features. Team members also used their knowledge of the lay of the land to scoop any extra snow from areas that could afford it.

— They won’t celebrate yet, not Sunday morning with one day of skiing left.

If the winter of 2011-12 has taught the slope maintenance crews anything, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted, and that lesson is not about to be forgotten.

“The wind could still blow,” Steamboat Ski Area Vice President of Operations Doug Allen said, laughing but not joking. “Not until Sunday afternoon, that’s when I’ll feel the relief. There won’t be any sense of relief until it’s over this season.”

Once the lifts finally close and bands begin rocking Gondola Square on Sunday afternoon, there could be an exhalation loud and long enough to topple a building.

Barring one final wild surprise, Steamboat Ski Area will have accomplished what it always has before but what three weeks ago, few on staff thought possible: staying open through Closing Day.

A rare winter

The problems the weather has presented slope maintenance crews with this season are multilayered and complex. So much went wrong that it’s almost difficult to pick what the largest problem was.

In the end, only 30 dump truck loads of snow that had been stashed elsewhere in the city and one short, merciful late-season cold snap kept slopes open through Sunday, as well as the long-planned Closing Day activities.

A half dozen nasty wind storms stripped critical high-traffic areas of snow cover throughout the winter. The ski area’s 225 inches is 17 feet less than last year’s 433, and most of this year’s total came in one massive three-week dump that included the most legendary of powder days, an overnight 27-inch avalanche from the heavens.

It proved only a temporary respite as just 6 inches of snow fell in the 36 days from March 6 to April 11.

It all still might have worked had it not gotten so warm. But Steamboat baked, and temperature records were set throughout March and April. The mercury soared into the 70s, and nature was well aware. Aspen trees began budding in the first week of April.

“I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never seen the aspens pop while the ski area was open,” slope maintenance director Frank Case said.

Experience counts

So, how does one keep a mountain of snow from melting in 70-degree weather?

The general consensus is, you don’t.

Slope maintenance crews were armed with nothing but careful planning and out-of-the-box thinking, and they deployed those weapons day in and day out.

Nothing made a difference quite like experience.

Most of the same grooming and maintenance crews who late this season adopted an attitude of “it won’t close on my watch” spend their summers preparing Mount Werner for the winters, installing the snowmaking equipment, the power lines and everything else required.

They scour the mountain, taking care to notice melting patterns in the spring and topography in the summer.

“It’s like being in your house,” Case said about the mountain. “You know where everything is, like how you can make it to the bathroom in the dark.”

That knowledge pays off when the snow starts to melt. As a season progresses, much of the terrain is shaped by skiers during the day and by groomers at night. Dips and ditches fill in and, by December or January, are indistinguishable from anywhere else on an evenly graded slope.

When the crews needed snow this spring, they went back to those areas and knew where they could scrape lower without hitting dirt.

“You don’t want to disturb it too much because then it will recede faster,” Case said.

But there was no other option.

They also began to cut into strategically placed stashes of stored snow, a well-known trick in the business. That half-pipe in the Lil’ Rodeo terrain park near the base? Sure, it’s a nice introduction to park riding. It’s also ideal snow storage, and it gave the beginner runs at the base new life when it was flattened in early April.

Sprint to Closing Day

Of course, all the snow strategy in the world wilts in the face of 75 degrees.

“The worst part was when you’d spend a couple days patching a run together so it was skiable, then seeing it melt away just a day or two later,” Case said.

The season’s unique weather continued to take a toll. The lack of snow in the fall allowed the ground to freeze hard, a rare occurrence that had unexpected consequences this spring.

“We lost our flats and our catwalks so rapidly, and we had never seen that before,” Allen said. “When the snow melted and the ground was still frozen, the water couldn’t seep into the ground like it usually can. Instead, it just ran down those roads and took the snow with it.”

That was a major factor in Steamboat Ski Area’s April 1 decision to close nearly two-thirds of the mountain, including everything below the gondola, a drastic but necessary step.

After that, every skier and snowboarder had to download via the gondola.

“There was still descent skiing on the lower mountain, but we lost our connectors,” Allen said. “You could go out and ski See Me right now, but there’d be no way to get to it on snow.”

As the days passed and the temperatures stayed high, even trails on open areas thinned to dangerous levels. Tower trail, a critical route that connects the top of Burgess Creek chairlift and the top of the gondola, melted to a ribbon of snow. Maintenance crews carefully protected what they could and celebrated every small discovery that yielded more snow.

Norther, a bumps run below the Burgess Creek chairlift, ended up holding snow better than anyone expected, and snowcats harvested that bounty into the final days.

Other unexpected stashes were discovered, and their gold was stripped and distributed.

Case stumbled across the idea of salvaging snow from the rodeo grounds and Howelsen Hill in downtown Steamboat Springs. It’s not exactly ideal and not the reason the snow was stashed there, but it proved critical, especially to Saturday and Sunday activities.

Job well done

There were times in the past three weeks when nearly everyone in charge of evaluating the snow thought summer would win the race to Closing Day.

Members of the slope maintenance team skied together every afternoon, trying to decide Sunday, Monday and Tuesday whether another day was even possible. Finally, a late-week cold snap that set in Wednesday night offered the first non-man-made good news in weeks.

In many ways, 2011-12 was the season that wasn’t. It was the season it didn’t snow and didn’t get cold. It was the season winter never truly bared its teeth.

Thanks to long nights, careful plans and the smallest bit of luck, the slope maintenance crew was able to ensure April 14 and 15 became the closing weekend that was.

“This is the time you really call on a very talented and experience grooming staff,” Allen said. “We have groomers here who have been here for 20-plus years, and they know the terrain. They know where the snow accumulates and know how to handle it every night. They pulled it off for us.”

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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