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Mountain News: U.S. skier days expected to dip below 50 million

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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Winter came late, is leaving early, and with just a few exceptions, was never all that much to crow about at Steamboat. How does that leave the ski company there?

"I think we dodged the bullet," said Chris Diamond, chief executive of the Steamboat resort, at an event covered by the Steamboat Pilot & Today. He told a business group last week that he expects Steamboat to be down three to four per cent in destination skier visits by the time the season ends.

Others have had it much worse. He said some ski areas in California and the eastern United States will be down 30 to 50 per cent in skier days. Last year, U.S. ski areas recorded 61 million skier days. This year, total U.S. skier days will probably dip below 50 million.

With an economy showing increasing signs of confidence, this could have been a record year. Going into November, the only metric that looked bad for Steamboat were the airline reservations.

"I think that was a function of the cost, a minimum of 20 per cent (increases year after year)," Diamond said. "The guest was holding off on that piece of the purchase until the last minute."

Investments in snowmaking made over the last 30 years allowed Steamboat to do reasonably well at Christmas, even if snow was only 10 feet wide on some trails. Early on, executives decided there would be no cap on the snowmaking budget.

But Diamond also warned of a lag effect.

"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.

CB lays off employees

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — Crested Butte Mountain Resort is struggling. It's not alone in the ski industry, of course, but it had pains even before the no-snow December caused troubles.

Now, the ski company has laid off some long-time employees, including full-time, year-round workers, and mandated a two-week unpaid leave for every employee at the end of ski season, reports the Crested Butte News.

This comes a week after Mammoth Mountain in California announced it was laying off 75 employees and cutting wages for others. Mammoth's revenues are projected to be off by 30 per cent this winter.

Ethan Mueller, Crested Butte's chief executive, said his company was hoping for a quick turnaround of the economy — but it hasn't happened. "Frankly, one problem is that we took too long on making the hard decisions." He compared the actions to taking off a Band-Aid a little bit at a time.

"Now we are right-sizing to fit our reality and moving forward. That's hard, and unfortunately, we probably aren't done."

Crested Butte has been struggling for years. On good roads, it is four hours from Denver, and hence attracts relatively few day-trippers or weekenders. It has some very good difficult skiing, which is one reason the X Games were first held there. But for intermediate skiers, who are the bread and butter of all destination resorts — well, there's not much to hold your interest beyond three days. Ski executives have said that the repeat business is low, compared to places like Snowmass and Beaver Creek, which means high advertising costs.

The resort was one of the first in the industry to invest heavily in a direct flight program, but with gas prices rising and airlines trying to align their finances, that subsidized program has yielded problems. When the recession hit, skiers stayed home, and Crested Butte had to pay the airlines enormous sums in revenue guarantees.

Then, because the reserves were exhausted, the direct flight program was curtailed. This winter, for example, the number of seats from Houston is down 65 per cent. That will reduce the revenue guarantee by $425,000. But fewer seats means 385 fewer destination guests — who spend an average of $1,300 while on vacation in Crested Butte. It's a downward spiral.

Altogether, Crested Butte expects to see a 10 per cent decline in skier days this season, to about 330,000. That compares to a high of 550,000 skier days during the heyday of the early 1990s (although 100,000 of those were part of the Free Ski promotion). Owners of Crested Butte during the last decade have consistently said they need to grow the skier days to 550,000 to 600,000 a season.

"If we can get into the 450,000 to 500,000 skier days range in the next five years or so, that would be great," Mueller told the News. He said some numbers he tracks show improvement, though he offered nothing of secret sauce. His best ambition is to break even next winter. This one will end in the red.

Little change in Sierra snow

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — An exhaustive study of snowfall records kept by railroads, utilities and others who have operated in the Sierra Nevada of California has revealed no long-term change since 1878.

The study was done by John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and a native of Fresno, Calif.

"California has huge year-to-year variations, and that's expected to continue," Christy told Science Daily in a story published in early March. "California is having a drought so far this winter, while last year the state had much heavier than normal snowfall. But over the long term, there just isn't a trend up or down."

Christy is among the most prominent of climatologists skeptical of the theory of global warming.

In a February story in the San Francisco Chronicle, climatologist Mike Dettinger suggests that Christy's study proves very little.

"There is a popular conception that the snowpack has declined everywhere, but that is not what the science says," Dettinger said. "What we're saying broadly is that across western North America there have been declines in spring snowpack."

Snowpack has declined over three-quarters of the western United States, an area that includes Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico, he said. Scientists from the Scripps Institution and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have concluded that 60 per cent of that downward trend is due to greenhouse gases.

Fewer heart attacks in Aspen

ASPEN, Colo. — Even as Aspen and its suburbs have been getting distinctly older, the number of heart attacks treated at Aspen Valley Hospital has dropped by about a third. How come?

The Aspen Times talked with Dr. Gordon Gerson, a cardiologist at the hospital. He attributed the decline to bans on smoking and the broader use of cholesterol-reducing statin drugs. The ban on smoking in public places has reduced exposure to second-hand smoke, he said, and second-hand smoke is a contributor to poor health.

But while there are continuing concerns about the side effects of the statin drugs in some cases, their use is more accepted. Gerson uses the drugs to get all his patients' LDL cholesterol levels below100 and high-risk patients' LDL levels below 70.

As for levels of fitness, that probably remains unchanged in the last decade. Aspen always has taken sweat seriously. But there's more gray, or at least dyed, hair: the number of seniors has increased from about 1,000 to nearly 2,000 within the last decade.

Short-term problems

TELLURIDE, Colo. — At least in some eyes, the practice of short-term rentals in single-family homes is getting to be a problem in unincorporated areas around Telluride.

The planning department of San Miguel County has recommended an amendment to the land-use code to prohibit short-term rentals. Mike Rozycki, the county planning director, said that if the commissioners adopt the amendment, county officials won't be tracking websites to see who's trying to rent out their house. "We'll enforce only when we get a complaint on a rental that changes the character of the neighbourhood," he told the Daily Planet.

Outfitter to guide in sidecountry

KETCHUM, Idaho — By whatever name, the area beyond the ski area boundaries has become a huge draw in the last 20 years. In recent years, a new name has cropped up — the sidecountry — to describe this area that can be reached with the ease of ski lifts but which is, in other ways, the backcountry.

The Forest Service and many in the ski industry dislike this new term. They say that it implies a sense of safety that just doesn't exist. In some cases, ski area managers may allow ski patrollers to go outside their boundaries to assist in or conduct rescues or body recoveries. But they most assuredly don't do avalanche control.

Now comes a case in Idaho that has stirred up resentments. The Forest Service has issued a guiding permit to an outfitter who will take customers to backcountry ski terrain adjacent to the Sun Valley's operations on Bald Mountain.

The Idaho Mountain Express reports three outfitters had originally applied for permits, but two dropped out because of what they described as the "extreme vitriol" of opponents.

"We strongly believe that maintaining community is more important than fresh tracks, guided or not," said Sun Valley Trekking and Sun Valley Helicopter Ski guides.

The Forest Service believes that the plan now in place will put to rest the heartburn in Ketchum and adjoining communities over the commercialization of the sidecountry stashes.

A symbolic swat

TELLURIDE, Colo. — The Telluride Town Council has agreed to take a symbolic swat at the U.S. Supreme Court decision that has allowed unlimited spending by corporations in political races. The council recently directed the town attorney to draft an ordinance calling for the abolishment of corporate personhood.

In doing so, Telluride joins a great many local governments, including Boulder, Colo. There, residents overwhelmingly passed a symbolic ordinance that asks for the abolishment of corporate personhood. Telluride officials thought about a similar community-wide vote, but decided a mere vote of the town council will suffice.

Raw milk on rise

ASPEN, COLO. — Some people like it raw — their milk, that is. They point out that when milk is heated to 161 degrees, a process called pasteurization, it kills 90 per cent of bacteria.

But bacteria comes in two forms: good and bad, when it comes to human health. And a non-profit called Sustainable Settings has been selling shares in a dairy herd to residents of the Roaring Fork Valley. The venture has almost 40 shareholders, with more on the waiting list. It costs $150 to buy a share of the herd, plus a $64 monthly boarding fee.

"It's not cheap, but it's high-quality, nutrient-dense rich milk, which is not on the shelf," the non-profit's director told The Aspen Times.

Doctors are split on the benefits of non-pasteurized milk.

"We've been pasteurizing milk for close to 100 years, and there's a reason," said Dr. Morris Cohen, medical officer for Pitkin County, who also serves on the Aspen municipal board of health. He advised the community to be wary of milk that hadn't been pasteurized.

Three times as many cases of food-borne illnesses involving dairy products occur as compared to produce and meat products, Cohen said. "The benefits of raw milk are so far outweighed by the risks of consuming bad bacteria. So why take the risk?"

The counter perspective comes from a naturopathic doctor in Basalt. Dr. Jody Powell told the Times that nutrients in raw milk help assuage symptoms of afflictions like arthritis, asthma and auto-immune illnesses.

"The idea with pasteurization is that if we just cook the milk to death, then we can kill the dangerous bacteria, which is true," Powell said. "But then you create a sterile product."

Responds Cohen: "You want a vitamin? Go to a vitamin store and get a daily vitamin supplement."