Tom Ross: The future of ski areas is in the bag |

Tom Ross: The future of ski areas is in the bag

Tom Ross

— Cars have air bags, why not ski areas?

Tyrol Basin Ski and Snowboard Area near Mt. Horeb, Wis., boasts a vertical drop of 300 feet and comprises 33 acres. A respectable Wisconsin cornfield is bigger than 33 acres.

But Tyrol Basin has something Steamboat Ski Area doesn't have: a giant air bag that turns novice skiers and snowboarders into superheroes.

Don't get the idea I'm ripping Tyrol Basin for being small — it's the first place I ever skied. And besides, you can ski for $12 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Night tickets are $29 and include rentals. Seriously. And did I mention they have an air bag?

You can watch a video of snowboarders launching onto the air bag here.

The ski industry needs little feeder ski areas across the Midwest and Atlantic Seaboard in order to grow the sport. And I'm beginning to see airbags like those manufactured by U.S. Airbag in the future of ski areas of all sizes.

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Here's the deal. The air bag is 10 feet deep and so large (50 feet by 50 feet) that it would be impossible for a skier or rider launching off the 15-foot jump at Tyrol Basin to miss landing on the forgiving bladder.

Snowboarders who have grown up on Gretchen Bleiler and the X Games can launch onto the air bag with impunity because it doesn't matter whether they can land the trick. The air bag gives up most of its air on impact through side vents, completely cushioning the athlete before rapidly reinflating.

According to an article by Barry Adams in the Jan. 13 Wisconsin State Journal (my hometown newspaper), Tyrol Basin is collecting $5 per jump and $25 for an all-day pass that drops to $12 on Tuesday nights, when students at the University of Wisconsin, about 20 miles away, should be hitting their chemistry texts instead of an air bag.

Tyrol Basin is one of only two ski resorts in the Midwest to cough up the $40,000 for an air bag of its own, but it already can foresee paying for it by the end of the season. People are coming from as far away as Dubuque, Iowa, to hit the bag.

Most skiers and riders will experience the U.S. Airbag this winter when the company's tour makes a stop at one of 50 ski areas across the country. Company officials planned two stops in Colorado this winter but won't show up at any of the destination resorts. U.S. Airbag is at Sunlight Mountain Resort on Saturday and will return for a visit to Eldora from March 15 to 17, when the University of Colorado library will empty out.

As I looked over the itinerary for the U.S. Airbag winter tour, it leaped out at me: The company's plan is to break in its innovative product at little ski areas like Pebble Creek, Idaho; Snow Creek, Mo.; Little Switzerland, Wis; Paoli Peaks, Ind., and SnowStar Resort, Ill.

As Steamboat Ski Area celebrates its 50th anniversary this winter, it's interesting to contemplate what the future holds. The answer's not up in the air, but I’ll wager that at least part of it is in the air bag.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email