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Mountain News: Santa sparing with some, kinder to others



TELLURIDE, Colo. — With the ground mostly brown just a few days before Christmas, some residents of Telluride gathered old skis and burned them in an offering to Ullr, in Norse mythology the god of snowshoes and some other items. The next day it snowed 10 centimetres at Telluride, reported the Daily Planet.

Coincidental or causal? Whatever. The San Juan Mountains have been so barren that just 10 cm was tantamount to a big dump in some winters.

Since then, a Christmas Eve storm left most of Colorado white. There was enough snow along the Continental divide in the Breckenridge to Winter Park area that avalanche forecasters warned backcountry skiers to definitely stay off slopes of more than 30 degrees.

"If you trigger an avalanche today, it may be large enough to kill you," warned the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

But the blanket of snow across Colorado was not uniform. Telluride got just an 2.5 cm, while Steamboat Today reported the local ski hill got 60 cm in two days. Ski areas in Montana and Wyoming did better.

In California, there was even less cause for holiday snow-white joy. There was no mistaking the Tahoe area for the North Pole at Christmas reported the Reno Gazette-Journal. "The mountains were patchy with snow all the way up, and the only snow falling was that made by the ski resorts."

"It won't be a disaster," said Chris Diamond, the former chief executive of the Steamboat ski area, just before the Christmas storm. He's now a consultant and has authored a book, Ski Inc., a roundup of his career in the ski industry from Killington in 1972 to his years at Steamboat.

Actually, it's been worse before. Most memorable in the modern ski area in the West was the winter of 1976-77 followed by another warm, dry winter of 1980-81. In that first winter, just seven centimetres of snow fell at Crested Butte in all of December.

In Vail, hotels would normally be full for the two weeks of Christmas and New Year's. But this year may be different. The Vail Daily reported guests were getting deferred reservations, postponing their stays until February and March in the belief that snow will come.

Jeanne Fritch, general manager of the Sitzmark, one of the Vail's oldest and most venerable lodges, said that rates were "slashed" for early-season guests.

The problem for Colorado is the same as the problem for California: a persistent high-pressure ridge that has shunted moisture-laden storms northward. This has produced "almost inconceivably heavy snowfall in the coastal mountains of southern Alaska," explained Daniel Swain in a Christmas Eve posting on the California Weather Blog.

In southern California, this high-pressure ridge has delayed the rainy season, allowing wildfire season to continue well into December. Swain said the "amazing" anomaly of the air-mass was revealed on the beaches of Southern California where the relative humidity fell as low as one per cent with surface dew-points at or below -7 C in some spots. "In other words, there was essentially no moisture at all in the air-mass that has lingered over SoCal for many days."

Is this a harbinger of a return of drought such as devastated California for several years? Swain said no, he doesn't see that yet, "but we're getting close."

Persistence of a high-pressure ridge doesn't spell doom for Colorado, Utah and New Mexico resorts, of course, but it does tend to favour the more northerly resorts.

Ketchum at heart of first dark sky reserve in nation

KETCHUM, Idaho — Ketchum and Sun Valley are in the middle of a new 3,640-square-kilometre designation of the first dark sky reserve in the United States. It's one of just 12 such designated reserves in the world.

Dark sky boosters in Colorado's Wet Mountain Valley had hoped to be first in the nation, but their efforts await approval of regulations that would limit use of outdoor lighting in new development.

The Idaho effort had been pushed along by Steve Botti, the mayor of Stanley, a town of 63 located a little more than an hour north of Sun Valley and Ketchum. He called the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve as something not just for locals and other people from Idaho, but for "visitors from across the world who can come here and experience the primeval wonder of the starry night sky."

Reserves can only be formed through partnerships of multiple land managers who have recognized the value of quality nighttime environment through regulation and long-term planning.

In Colorado, the towns of both Westcliffe and Silver Cliff have been designated dark sky status after each municipality adopted regulations limiting light pollution and light trespass. Next, retired architect Jim Bradburn, who designed the iconic teepee-terminal at Denver International Airport, had hoped to put Custer County under the dark-sky tent. The valley lies east of the Sangre de Cristos, in south-central Colorado.

The Wet Mountain Tribune reported that planning commissioners heard objections at a recent meeting. One county resident called it classic government overreach.

Others said that no, their property rights were being protected because they did not want bright lights intruding into their spaces. Gary Coleman said he had returned to the valley with the intent of opening a bed-and-breakfast, complete with telescope for those wanting to enjoy the night sky.

Ski area tribute to writer Hunter Thompson remains

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. — Almost 13 years after his suicide, the writer Hunter S. Thompson continues to be the subject of fascination and semi-idolatry.

One of those memorials is on the ski slopes at Snowmass, which altogether has quite a few in-the-trees, off-the-slopes assemblages to honour various causes and people. The shrine, explained the Aspen Daily News, is but one of dozens of quirky and unsanctioned on-mountain warrens of memorabilia tucked within the four local ski areas.

Most remain, although the Aspen Skiing Co., the operator of the four ski areas, has dismantled at least two of them as it constructed its new on-mountain coaster at Snowmass.

Among those dismantled was what the Daily News described as the "iconic golf shrine," a tribute to golf. Go figure. That tribute included a golf bag, a bucket of balls, a bench, and dozens of laminated photographs of such golfing greats as Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer.

But the Hunter Thompson shrine remains.

It consists of an American flag, a gloved arm with "gonzo" written on it, a lizard covered with multi-coloured jewels, Tibetan prayer flags, and a copy of The Woody Creeker (he lived along Woody Creek, outside Aspen), among other artifacts.

The Daily News said that the Aspen Skiing Co. neither promotes the existence of the shrines nor advocates for their removal, as the company recognizes they are popular with some guests. Some ski instructors and mountain ambassadors get requests for directions.

E-bikes now allowed

JACKSON, Wyo. — Electric bicycles are now allowed on pathways and in bike lanes of Jackson and Teton County.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide said the population of e-bikes has exploded in the past year or two, raising questions about their safety and legal use.

Proponents said the low-speed motorized bicycles, with maximum speeds of 32 km/h, will accommodate needs of commuting professionals who can't show up to work sweaty in the summer.

"We have a traffic issue in this community, and this is a great alternative to allow people to use a different mode of transportation rather than jumping in their car," Teton County Commissioner Greg Epstein said.

In an editorial, the newspaper addressed a minority point of view, namely that relatively fast-moving e-bikes pose a safety risk to pedestrians and other slower-moving users of trails. "Put a bell on that e-bike," instructed the paper.