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Keeping Snowsports Alive, Reversing A Trend: Part One

Numbers DownEver since we officially started UnofficialAlpine.com, back in 2008, our mission has been the same. We want to create a community of skiers and riders that have a passion for sliding on snow. Over the years, our readership has grown immensely, and our coverage has grown to cover 5 mountains. But we’re deeply concerned by the trends in the industry overall. The graph spells it out too clearly. In the late 70’s there were roughly 735 resorts in the US. By last season, that number was down to 470. Although the decline in skiers and riders is more difficult to track, in simplistic terms, the Boomer generation is getting out of the sport much more quickly than Generation X and Y are entering the sport. Why is that happening?

Question

All of the above would be the correct answer, except we probably need to add in several more choices to have a completely correct answer. It’s a complex issue, but it’s one that some of us worry about.

Some of us just need to be on the hill. It’s likely that our parents took us out to some local hill with a rope tow until we developed the passion for snow, and we did the same for our kids. For the better part of 40 years, I have spent every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter vacation skiing with my family. It’s what we do, and we know that many of you do the same. We hope our kids will get the same opportunity for generations to come.

We don’t have all of the answers on global warming. It’s not to say that we all can’t do our part, but it is certainly a bigger problem than we can address in a couple of posts on a ski blog! But we believe we can have an impact on choices A, B, and C, especially because we believe they are all related.

More and more, resorts are becoming more about the “out of boot” experience, and not just about sliding on snow. More and more, ski hills are owned by real estate developers instead of skiers and riders. More and more, there are fewer options available for where to go skiing and riding. More and more, those options are getting either further away from home, or they are getting too expensive for middle and lower class families.

While this is of great concern to those of us that grew up skiing and riding, it seems to be of little concern to the few mega-corporations that own most of the ski areas in the US. We’re not just talking about KSL here, which is actually a relatively small player in the industry. While the mega-corporations may be okay with selling a million cheap season passes, they’re more concerned about selling real estate, and not to the local skiing population. They’re more concerned about selling a vacation experience to anyone that is willing to part with large sums of money. Evidently, it’s pretty lucrative, as the expansion of Vail Resorts over the last few years has proven.

Consolidation

What does that mean for us? To our benefit, it often leads to cheaper season passes, and those passes work often work at several resorts, scattered across the region, or maybe across the world. But overall the experience of sliding on snow is becoming more and more expensive and more and more exclusive. The costs of rentals, lessons, team programs, and food and beverages has soared to bolster the income of resorts that can’t cover costs with lift tickets and pass sales. When the investors still insist on a return for their investment, resorts simply curtail the number of operational lifts or shorten the season to maximize profit.

The snow industry will not survive if every resort looks the same, skis and rides the same, and offers the same short season. Pretty soon, the only thing that will separate the mega-resorts is the “out of boot” experiences. Who will win that race? Will it be the resort with the mega-indoor water park or the one with a full mountain roller coaster? At what point will the resorts become just another cruise ship experience, where the focus is on the all you can eat buffet, shopping and an occasional “on mountain” excursion?

We know what’s missing. We believe that the survival of the snow industry depends on maintaining a stratification of ski areas or resorts throughout the US. In the last year, community ski areas have been a hot topic. My bookmark list is full of articles on the topic, and we’ll be sharing those in Part 2. But the Community Ski Area Survey, sponsored by the Mountain Rider’s Alliance and SkiEssentials.com, last year made a couple of very important points:

• More than 70% of the 1400 respondents learned to ski or ride at an area with a vertical of less than 1600 feet. Of those, more than 60% learned at an area that was a “mom and pop” owned ski hill

• Only 10% of the respondents learned to ski or ride at a mega-resort with a vertical of 2500 or more than 12 lifts

We don’t see that trend changing any time soon. The average price for a day ticket now tops $100, and a lesson and rentals will easily add another $200. Are people willing to pay that much to try out the sport? Apparently some people are, but will it be enough to keep the sport alive? We think it’s unlikely. The snow industry needs to make sure that, as skiers and riders, we have as many options as possible for accessing the sport. We believe there are three essential “layers” of snowsports areas required to keep the sport alive.

 

Breeders• Typically local mountains that serve a community and day trippers

• Affordable day tickets

• Limited but affordable lessons

• Limited or no onsite rentals

• Limited advanced terrain

• Basic food and beverage services

• Hardware based terrain parks

• Often supported by community or public funding

• Typical patrons will be there as little as a few times a season to as much as every weekend.


 

Feeders
• Supported primarily by locals, day trippers and weekend warriors

• Affordable day tickets

• Affordable lessons and rentals

• Affordable team programs for kids

• More varied food services

• Developmental terrain park features

• Support the surrounding communities

• Typical patrons will be there 12-18 times per season, but locals may be there more than 100 days per season

 


 

Destination• Supported primarily by destination skiers staying at the resort

• Visitors arrive primarily by air from other regions or out of the country

• Cheap passes encourage longer stays at the resort

• Focus on longer stays to sell “shared ownership” properties

• Provide a wide variety of “out of boot” amenities to encourage visitors to stay on property

• Offer “world class” experiences in housing, dining and on-mountain services

• The focus on “off season” activities may be greater than skiing and riding as the typical peak ski season extends only from mid-December until early March.


Unless we strive to maintain this stratification, the sport of sliding on the snow is likely to continue into a downhill spiral. Skiing will become something that the rich do as a novelty, taking a few runs a day while staying at their little place in Tahoe, which they own 1/26th of the year. Those of us that can’t afford the price of admission will learn about backcountry skiing or move on to other places. While that may be acceptable to some of us, for many of us it’s worth the effort to create change.

It’s easiest to just sit back and say change is impossible. It’s not. In Keeping Snowsports Alive, Reversing A Trend: Part 2, we will be taking a look at what other communities are doing to protect the smaller areas. We also have some suggestions about what we can do ourselves to protect skiing and riding for the masses.

 

Weather Signs Looking Positive

I am actually quite sick of hearing about the CPC Seasonal Forecast released last week, which predicted that parts of California will see a dry winter again this year. If one more person asks me whether or not I am concerned about another bad ski season, I would like to throw a snowball in their face. There’s some good positive weather signs that it might just be possible.

In fact, there is currently very little similarity between the shorter term 16 day GFS forecast and the seasonal forecast released by Accuweather last week. The Pacific NW is looking pretty darn wet with that huge trough hanging out near Alaska. This is vastly different that the conditions we were seeing last fall, where a blocking high pressure system sat in the  Gulf Of Alaska. Sure, there is a ridge over the Rockies that is preventing storms from fully moving in just yet, but the current GFS shows we will be far better off than Utahrado in the upcoming weeks.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 10.13.00 AMWhile we’re talking about the longer range forecasts, the JAMSTEC seasonal models were also quietly released last week. We’ve never really talked about the Japanese weather model here before, but it’s been catching a lot of attention in the weather world. It correctly predicted the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge scenario last year and predicted a very dry year when the US NAMME was calling for a very wet year. We like the look of the JAMSTEC for this season.

JAMSTECBut what we really wanted to talk about was some of the shorter term forecast tools, as they are far more reliable in looking at what to expect in the near range. The Madden – Julian Oscillation (MJO) seems to be heading solidly into Phase 1, which is the first of several phases that generally lead to more wet conditions on the west coast. The MJO remained relatively neutral and unpredictable for almost all of last season. The question is, will it continue to move in its normal oscillation or will it do some of the crazy retrogrades and returns to neutral we saw last season?

ensplume_full

Lastly, the Pacific North American Index (PNA) is looking nice and negative again, with all members of the ensemble showing it negative by early November. Essentially all that says is that all of the models are seeing a trough in the Pacific instead of a ridge. It’s been a very reliable indicator that storms are possible.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 9.52.50 AM

In super simplistic terms, you have to have a low pressure trough for energy and moisture to provide for precipitation. Having one, but not the other, does not lead to good storms. The MJO says the moisture will be there and the PNA says the trough will be there. Winter is coming, we just have to be patient.

Squaw Valley Timber Plan Will Improve Community Safety And Offer New Terrain

SquawMap

Kudos to the mountain manager at Squaw Valley, Mike Livak, for making a move that will enhance the on-mountain experience, while also offering the Village some meaningful fire protection in the event of a large wildfire. The Timber Management Plan announced today will remove as many as 5,000 dead or diseased trees on the lower mountain in the Red Dog area. In addition to thinning the trees to offer a reasonable fire break, the cutting will clear up to 100 acres to provide some glade skiing.  The area was previously unaccessible to skiers & riders due to the dense forest and downed timber.

“This effort will result in the creation of new, gladed tree skiing for our guests, and will ultimately feel like a terrain expansion due to the new access,” said Mike Livak, executive vice president of Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows.

The three new glades will offer skiers and riders a path down the mountain besides the dreaded long traverse on Champs Elysees. Specifically, the three new funds will be named Red Dog Glades, Paris Glades and Heidi’s Glades. Traffic on Champs Elysees is one of the reason skiers and riders dread Red Dog in the early season. During low snow periods, access to the new glades would still be limited as snowmaking in the bladed areas would be unlikely.

Work on the project is expected to begin soon, with a goal of completion to make the new glades usable for the upcoming season. All trees will be removed by helicopter to avoid damage caused by skidding and to prevent the need for building access roads. Many of the trees will be sold for the timber value, while other debris will be chipped for use on the mountain.

“The current drought and the King Fire bring into sharp focus the issue of forest health and how it affects our community right here in Squaw. Thinning provides valuable benefit by effectively utilizing the available water for the most viable trees, and the removal of dead or diseased trees dramatically reduces the risk of fire. While this work is expensive for private landowners, our community will benefit from Squaw| Alpine’s investment in fuels reduction and forest health and I commend the company for doing the right thing,” said Peter Bansen, Squaw Valley fire chief.

Again, we offer kudos to mountain manager Mike Livak for taking a big step toward improving the on mountain experience for Squaw Valley skiers and riders, while also achieving a more “fire-safe” community.

Money NOT Well Spent

We really wanted to do an Xtranormal video this month...sadly the site is currently down.

We really wanted to do an Xtranormal video to highlight SOV spending this month…sadly the site is currently down.

The numbers are no surprise. We didn’t need to use our trend graph to tell you that Squaw Valley Ski Holdings and KSL Capital have now spent over $427,000 in fighting the will of the voters in Olympic Valley. The spending has averaged $80,000 each month and there’s no sign it will stop. They’ve made it clear that they are going to do what it takes to get their way.

People are really starting to speak up about what is going on in the offices of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings. They have realized that we can’t trust any of the promises that have been made regarding Alpine Meadows or Squaw Valley. We’re not surprised that there have been three different guest columnists, all prominent local professionals, asking for a change in the way SVSH leaders work with the community. Here’s the links:

• Dr. Robb Gaffney “Do We Want Squaw Valley Ski Holdings Leading Us?”, Tahoe Daily Tribune 10/15/14

• Dr. Jon Shanser “Inconvenient Truths Or Convenient Fiction?”, Tahoe Daily Tribune 10/11/14

• Jennifer Gurecki “Squaw Valley – A New Direction For Leadership”, Tahoe Daily Tribune 10/3/14

We have also published two articles over the last month, including the wildly popular “So What Does A Good Ski CEO Look Like?” which highlights the success of John Kircher, owner and GM of Crystal Mountain. Yes, we are ready for a change too.

They tell us that they are listening. They’ll be sure point out that they have cut the proposed Squaw development in half. They won’t tell us that the latest proposal is what they wanted all along.

They have garnered support by supporting prominent local non-profits and small businesses. They have lured us with suggestions of new lifts at Red Dog, Granite Chief, Hot Wheels and Siberia. They encouraged us to dream about a connection between Squaw and Alpine Meadows. We were promised that each mountain would retain a separate identity. Those promises seem to mean nothing.

The more money they spend to “Save Olympic Valley”, the more they are harming themselves. The public is not dumb.  When will the leaders at Squaw Valley Ski Holdings and KSL Capital realize that their current trajectory is negatively affecting their assets as well as the surrounding communities of Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley, and the greater North Lake Tahoe region? We can think of 427,000 good reasons to work with the community, not disrupt it.

Here’s the link to this month’s SOV financial filing…all funded by Squaw Valley Ski Holdings and KSL Capital.

Squaw Valley Files To Replace Siberia Lift in 2015

site planA

Squaw Valley Ski Holdings has requested a Conditional Use Permit for the replacement of the Siberia lift in 2015. The plan would replace the current high speed quad with a high speed six pack. It would be the first significant on mountain improvement for skiers and riders at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows since the installation of the Big Blue lift in 2012.

According to the project description, the new lift would actually reduce the uphill capacity. The current high speed quad is rated at an uphill capacity of 3,000 riders per hour. The new lift is rated for only 2400 skiers per hour. In practice, the current Siberia lift rarely operates at full speed, as it leads to too many issues with loading efficiently. So although the new lift would have a lower rated capacity, it may actually get riders up the hill faster due to fewer stops.

The new lift is also a wider gauge than the current lift, with heavier chairs, which may lead to more stability in high wind events. Siberia has been the subject of frequent wind holds due to its location at the summit.

Certainly this calls into question the 3 other conditional use permits that are already held by SVSH for lift replacements:

Replacement of the Red Dog chair with a high speed six-pack: This Conditional Use Permit was issued by Placer County in April of 2013 and was good for 24 months, or April 2015. There is no word on whether or not an extension has been filed.

Replacement of the Granite Chief chair with a high speed quad: This project received a Conditional Use Permit in February of 2012, and it expires in February 2015. Again there is no word on whether or not an extension has been filed. At one point, the Granite Chief chair replacement was reportedly the number one project priority for on mountain improvements. There seems to be pretty widespread support for the project.

• Replacement of the Hot Wheels Chair at Alpine Meadows with a high speed quad: This project received a Conditional Use Permit in September of 2012, with the permit expiring in September 2015. The project would not only replace the fixed triple with a high speed lift, the new chair would extend further to a location near the top of Sherwood, with a mid station for unloading at the current top terminal.

We wrote a more detailed report on those projects back in April of 2013 if you want more information.

We’re curious about the decision to replace the Siberia chair before the other three projects have been completed. I will say that the loading situation is less than ideal, and some reports suggest there were some frequent mechanical issues with the lift over the last two seasons. We wonder if this replacement will actually  happen, or if it will just serve as a way to bring positive publicity to Squaw at a time where the current administration is losing community support. We would love to hear your comments.

Here’s the links to the Siberia Project Description and a larger version of the Site Plan.

The Winter Weather Outlook From A Regional Point Of View

off03_prcp

The Climate Prediction Center released their forecast for the winter today. While it’s not forecasting the super deep snow year everyone wanted, it’s not forecasting a return of the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge that kept us exceptionally dry for more than a year. While the other local bloggers jumped at the CPC forecast in an effort to be first, we waited patiently for the Reno office of the NOAA to release their analysis of the forecast. Yes, real experts, that are a bit more familiar with exactly what it will mean for the greater Reno-Tahoe area.

Without any further ado, here’s Part One of the forecast, which gives a “state of the drought” report and summarizes today’s CPC forecast:

In a nutshell, there’s a 65% chance that we will see an El Niño this year in our region. It is expected to be weak, at best, and not strong like the 1997 event. What does it mean? CPC says the following:

• Expect warmer than normal temperatures for the entire western US during the winter months. That would translate into some higher snow levels, which is a plus for Alpine Meadows, and more of a plus for Mount Rose and Mammoth.

• The Pacific Northwest may see a drier than normal year, while the southern third of the country can expect to see a wetter than normal winter.

None of those conclusions are surprising as they are typical “El Nino” results. Lake Tahoe happens to land right in the middle of the wet and dry zones, leading the CPC to stamp a big “EC” over the Tahoe region. The Reno guys are quick to point out that EC does not equal normal or average, it simply means there are equal chances of the wetter solution and the drier solution…or the average solution.

The guys over at WeatherWest.com have noted in recent weeks that the El Niño event continues to become more neutral, but a positive PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation) signal could lead to a better chance for a wetter solution than the last several years, which were negative PDO years. We’ll take any chance we can at getting even close to a normal year, which would seem pretty sensational.

Part Two of the Reno NOAA seasonal forecast focuses on the difficulties of assessing the long term forecast in the Sierra and Reno-Tahoe area. It also does an analysis on the 8 climate models that make up the North American Multi-Model Ensemble. This new ensemble model is only a couple of seasons old.

• Unfortunately 7 of the 8 models that make the Ensemble are suggesting a drier winter in the west. That said, the same ensemble suggested at this time last year that it would be a very wet year, and we know how that prediction turned out. So the accuracy of these climate models in seasonal predictions is still a very young science. Do not panic yet!

• Discussion over at WeatherWest.com suggests that the models are concerned about the warm blob of water that still exists near Alaska that may be related to the occurrence of the RRR. The effect of a positive PDO with that blob is unknown.

For now, we just have to rejoice in the idea that this year could very well turn out “normal”, not that there is such a thing in the Sierra. No matter what happens, eventually there will be some snow and many of us will choose to ski it, whether it is a powder day or a WROD day. Closing with a great weather quote for the day:

“Weather and cats do what they please, and men and dogs may as well accustom themselves to it.”