John Seeley and the group he was with enjoy lunch Friday at Slopeside Grill at the base of Steamboat Ski Area. Seeley was visiting from Dallas, Texas.

Photo by John F. Russell

John Seeley and the group he was with enjoy lunch Friday at Slopeside Grill at the base of Steamboat Ski Area. Seeley was visiting from Dallas, Texas.

Low Steamboat snowfall proves challenging for Ski Corp.

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Brad Klinger, visiting from Michigan, puts his skis on a rack Friday afternoon at the base of Steamboat Ski Area.

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Skis line the racks at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area on Friday afternoon.

— Chris Diamond was blunt this week in describing to a group of business people the challenges his staff encountered while holding together the ski season that is vital to Steamboat Springs’ economic health.

Call it a very un-stormy season.

“Winter is always a surprise, and every year is a little different. I would say this has been our most difficult in my tenure going back to 1999,” Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Diamond said Wednesday during the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association Business Outlook Breakfast.

To say that this winter has been a little different is an understatement, especially when it is compared with the ski season that preceded it.

Steamboat tallied 433 inches of snow in the 2010-11 season, but as of Thursday, with the mercury rising into the upper 50-degree range under sunny skies, the ski area was reporting season snowfall of just 218 inches. That’s already comfortably above historic lows for the season: Steamboat totaled 133.25 inches at midmountain in 1980-81, 166.75 in 1986-87 and 172.75 in 1991-92. But it’s nowhere near the powder potential Steamboat’s loyal skiers and snowboarders have become accustomed to in the past six or seven years.

The average annual snowfall here is 308 inches. And the ski area received just 261.75 inches in the winter of 2009-10. Mount Werner has been blessed with four ski seasons in excess of 400 inches of snowfall since the winter of 2005-06. Near-record snowfall had become the norm for much of the past 10 years.

Diamond still was hoping for a return in the coming week to a snowy weather pattern that he said was critical to motivating regional skiers to come to Steamboat for the last three weeks of the ski season that ends April 15. When all is said and done, Diamond predicted that the impacts of the unpredictable winter weather will have been moderate while other ski areas across the nation will have absorbed a bigger hit.

Delivering holiday wishes

For Steamboat’s snowmaking and grooming crews, the most important task early on in this most unusual winter was assuring a quality experience for December holiday crowds.

“I think it’s been a long, long time since destination guests came to Steamboat or any of the major Colorado resorts and had a truly disappointing Christmas,” Diamond said. “If that ever happens, all bets are off. As soon as that disappointing trip occurs, you pay a huge price down the road.”

Diamond explained that holiday skiers, who book well in advance and pay top rates to enjoy a ski vacation during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, tend to return once every several years. A ski resort that can’t deliver during the holidays misses a turn in the rotation.

“It takes people out of the cycle and affects their decision to come whenever their next trip would be. They don’t come every year, except for vacation homeowners. Typically, it’s two to three years,” Diamond said.

November, when Steamboat hopes to build a base of man-made and natural snow for a Thanksgiving opening, began well, but a vicious windstorm that knocked down trees portended struggles to come.

“We had a decent Thanksgiving. We got off to a pretty good start and that was pretty much it for good news,” Diamond said.

“Fortunately, we realized early on that there was no such thing as a snowmaking budget,” Diamond said. “It was whatever it took, we’d have to figure out how to basically connect the dots to have a reasonable holiday.”

It was especially challenging, Diamond said for mountain crews to string together a series

of ski trails needed to funnel holiday skiers in and out of the Priest Creek area, which is important for the access to the restaurants at Rendezvous Saddle, as well as for adding acreage to the overall availability of terrain.

What ski area officials could not have anticipated was the series of wind storms that hit the ski mountain from the east and stripped from some strategic areas of the mountain what little natural snow already had fallen.

“As we were trying to get the Priest Creek drainage before the holidays, all the snow at the base of those lifts had basically been stripped bare” by the wind, Diamond said. “It was just dirt.”

Snowmaking crews had two snow guns to make snow at the bottom of the lifts, which only delayed working on key beginner and intermediate trails in Priest Creek like lower Westside and Broadway.

“Because of these crazy winds, we had these challenges all over the mountain,” Diamond said.

The ski area managed to patch together a holiday ski season that worked for its guests, Diamond said.

“I think the team did a great job. Sometimes the path (of snow) was only 10 feet wide, but we got in and out of Christmas in a way that I think sort of dodged the bullet when you look back at our business. We maintained high service scores throughout the community.”

In terms of holiday skier visits, Steamboat was off as much as 20 percent, Diamond said, but much of that drop-off was attributable to season pass holders, who could afford to wait to ski. Still, the scarcity of snow in late December was setting the stage for a soft January.

“January showed considerable weakness except for groups,” Diamond said. Prospective ski vacationers were making decisions about early March vacations as the snow drought persisted into January.

“We came out of January behind,” Diamond said. “It really wasn’t until Feb. 7, 8, 9 that little storms started to pile up, and then on the 20th, we had the epic 27 inches, plus another 5 to 7 inches during the day depending on where you were.”

The positive snow message went out to the world, but just as quickly as someone had turned the snow on at Valentine’s Day, the switch was flipped off at the end of the month and the Colorado Rockies entered a period of cloudless skies and temperatures often reaching into the 50s right through St. Patrick’s Day.

“We have great spring skiing, but some people want powder, and we’re seeing a lower ratio of overnight visitors to skiers on the mountain,” Diamond said.

The National Weather Service was forecasting Friday a 50 percent chance of snow overnight Sunday and Monday. Steamboat’s spring skiers and the ski area’s president just might get their wish for some additional snow at the end of a ski season when everything and anything happened.

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

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