By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
BIG SKY – As of EBS press time on Feb. 4, there were nine ski resorts closed on the West Coast of the U.S. – from California to Alaska – due to a lack of snow.
Squaw Valley Ski Resort in California remained open, but was reporting a 35-inch base on Feb. 4. The resort received 4 inches of total snowfall – at 8,000 feet – during January and is reporting a season total of 114 inches for the season at the 8,000-foot stake, and 33 inches at 6,200 feet. The resort claims an average annual snowfall of 450 inches.
According to a Feb. 3 article on snowbrains.com, ski industry executives met the first week of February at the SIA Snow Show in Denver’s Colorado Convention Center. They discussed challenges facing the industry including climate change, as well as an aging customer base and infrastructure.
Bill Jensen, a former Vail Resorts executive and CEO of Intrawest, said the future is grim for many ski resorts. “One hundred fifty ski areas are in ‘the sunset of their existence,’ and … an additional 150 ski areas could be out of business within the decade,” according to the snowbrains.com report. Seventy-six U.S. ski areas have closed since 1991.
Miles Clark, founder and editor-in-chief of snowbrains.com, is a Squaw Valley local who’s left the Tahoe area every winter since 2012 to ski in Japan because of the lack of snow in California. He spent 10 weeks there last winter and plans to spend another 10 weeks this season.
“I’ve unfortunately lost some faith,” Clark said. “I’m paying rent in Tahoe and throwing away $450 a month.”
Clark says he feels that the smaller ski areas in the country are going to have a harder time surviving in the future.
“You do see changes happening,” Clark said. “It is tough for the smaller mom and pop resorts to compete with the major resorts. One thing I’ve learned with Vail Resorts is they sell the Epic passes, get that huge bundle of cash and reinvest it right away. They have that big financial inflow before the season starts and the money’s there whether it snows or not.”
While January was relatively warm and dry in southwest Montana, Big Sky Resort has benefitted from the consistent snowfall that is typical for the ski area – it had 5,115 acres of terrain open and reported 4-12 inches of snow in the previous 24 hours on Feb. 4.
“We’re just above our average snowfall for this time of year,” said Big Sky Resort PR Manager Sheila Chapman on Jan. 30. She added that the resort is on par with the skier numbers they saw last year, thanks in part to exceptional snowfall in early December.
“Coming off a big snowfall year, people have that in their head and last year was big,” Chapman said, adding that the resort could finish with another record visitation year if the rest of the season is snowy. “It’s not how you start the race it’s how you finish.”
There are a few areas that have seen big snowfall this season. As of Feb. 4, Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort had received 265 inches of snow and Grand Targhee Resort was boasting an 84-inch base.
Bruce MacMillan, marketing and sales manager for Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing north of Kamloops, British Columbia, said they’ve had an excellent season despite some warm January weather.
“We started off really strong with snow in mid-November,” MacMillan said. “We got up on the glacier in December, and that doesn’t typically happen … we’re usually tree skiing waiting for the crevasses to get covered up.
“For the most part the snow has been fantastic,” he added on Jan. 30, noting that the warm weather in late January brought rain at higher elevations. “We just went through a few days of [bad] weather and a couple days of rain. It rained throughout B.C.”
MacMillan said the snow returned the first weekend of February with over a foot dropping at tree line, and another foot expected Feb. 4-5. The lackluster ski conditions in much of the U.S., coupled with the strong U.S. dollar, has brought more Americans to the heli-ski operation this season.
“It was the same thing last year – a lot of last minute bookings,” MacMillan said. “We’re getting a lot of people saying, ‘We’ve got no snow.’”
It appears that with global climate change there will be less snow in the future, and it’s going to be a challenge for the ski industry, Clark said. Despite the fact that he’s left the continent to find snow, Clark remains optimistic out of necessity.
“I think that I’ve put all my chips on the ski industry,” he said. “Snowbrains.com is my retirement.”