With the unusual reversal of seasons this past month, resorts like Vail, Copper and Breckenridge were persuaded by the feet of April snow to reopen. For the last article of the season, I spoke with Liz Biebl and Sarah Lococo of Vail Resorts as well as Dwight Eppinger of Copper Mountain to discuss the reopening process.
What are the deciding factors in order to reopen the resort?
Biebl and Lococo: The most important factors in deciding to reopen Vail for another weekend of skiing and snowboarding this season was the significant amount of snow the resort received near the end of the season, particularly on closing day and the following Monday. We also felt confident about more snowfall in the forecast as well as the feasibility of staffing operations to reopen. Vail received about five feet of snow between Sunday, April 14 – Vail’s originally scheduled closing day – and Sunday, April 21 – Vail’s extended closing day
The main reason Vail decided to reopen. Photo Courtesy Vail Resorts.
Once the decision is made, how do you decide for how long and what terrain you will reopen, and what goes into this decision?
Eppinger: The decision on how much and what terrain we were going to open was first partly forced because we had already started doing maintenance work on some lifts so those areas were not available. Next we looked at an area where we would be able to open all types of terrain for the public and do it in a safe manner.
Biebl and Lococo: Vail decided to extend the 50th anniversary season for one weekend only, thanks to fantastic snow conditions. The amount of terrain and on-mountain facilities we were able to open was largely dependent upon the number of employees that were still around after the official close of the season on April 14 and were available for re-hire.
How many employees are needed to reopen?
Eppinger: This is from the top of my head so it could be a little off. We opened 450 acres, 15 ski patrollers, six to eight lift attendants, two ticket checkers, six lift maintenance, eight groomers, four shuttle drivers, two snow removal, five parking, four to five ticket sellers, four rental/retail, eight to ten food and beverage. This doesn't include accounting, marketing or any other behind the scenes departments (who were also helping fill in the front line positions).
What are the steps in getting ready to reopen?
Biebl and Lococo: After making the decision to reopen for an additional weekend of skiing and snowboarding at Vail, the first step was to re-hire employees, from lift operators and food and beverage positions, to product sales personnel and ticket scanners, to ski patrollers and groomers. With a better idea of staffing capabilities, we could then determine what terrain could reopen, what lifts would run, and what on-mountain dining services would be available for guests. All of this was then communicated to the public as soon as possible. Prior to reopening on Friday, April 19, ski patrol was on the mountain evaluating terrain and conducting the necessary prep work to ensure that all areas of the mountain that were slated to open were ready for skiers and snowboarders.
Vail Patrollers. Photo Courtesy of Vail Resorts.
What’s the most difficult thing about reopening?
Eppinger: I'd say staffing. Most of the hourly employees had already moved on and a lot of the year round staff was already on vacation.
Biebl and Lococo: Ensuring Vail would have enough employees to run the necessary operations to reopen the resort is certainly a challenge. Extending the season an extra weekend was truly a resort-wide team effort that all came together on Tuesday, April 16, prior to reopening on Friday, April 19.
Do the prices of lift tickets remain the same?
Biebl and Lococo: Tickets for Vail’s extended weekend of skiing and snowboarding cost $50. A special $25 ticket was offered to guests holding a season pass to any ski resorts outside of Vail Resorts. Guests were able to apply either of these ticket purchases towards the purchase of a 2013-2014 Vail Resorts Epic Pass or other season pass product.
Eppinger: Ticket pricing was done as normal. We based the price on open terrain and competitive pricing. We did not allow you to apply your ticket price towards next year's season pass. We wanted to keep the products offered as simple as possible to keep the ticket lines as short as possible. Reopening wasn't about making money; we did it because we felt it was the right thing to do for our season pass holders.
Another gopro shot showing the goods. Photo courtesy Vail Resorts.
Every week, skiers and snowboarders en route to one of the many Summit County resorts pass Loveland Ski Area. From I-70, Loveland appears small relative to other nearby mountains. What the majority of these people do not realize is that Loveland has twice the acreage as Arapahoe Basin, a variety of terrain from high alpine bowls and steeps to glades, and now offers free cat skiing. Friday, I was invited to ski the Loveland experience and take a ride on the new Ridge Cat.
After the past storm that deposited close to three feet of snow, conditions were reminiscent of winter. The cat climbs to a neighboring 13,000-foot peak revealing 360-degree views of the Gore Range, the I-70 Corridor, as well as the many inbound, skiable bowls and steeps that typically remain untouched for days at a time. Due to avalanche danger only a couple of runs were open; however, cruising boot-deep, creamy powder in the sun for 1,000-vertical feet was more than satisfactory. If at Loveland on a day where all of the Cat-accessed terrain is open, farther down the ridge are steeper bowls and the Rock Chutes, which are similar to Breckenridge’s Lake Chutes.
Loveland season pass holders enjoying the view and freshies on an empty Friday.
Marketing and communications director for Loveland Ski Area, John Sellers, said they decided to do it for free as an added bonus in order to allow customers to experience new terrain they would not normally take the time to hike to.
“It’s such a unique experience because not a lot of people ever get the chance to ride in a snowcat,” Sellers said. “But then, I think it opens a lot of people’s eyes to what terrain we have, because they can see it from other chairs but never think that they can get out there. Now it gives out customers more of an opportunity to explore the mountain.”
We found some good turns like this one the whole day.
Best of all, we were almost the only people taking advantage of the untracked snow. Colorado native and Loveland frequenter, Richie Londer, said this is characteristic of the ski resort. With few lift lines, even when the parking lot is full, Loveland Ski Area remains a hidden gem.
“I have ridden all the inbounds cats and Loveland’s and Copper's are the best,” Londer said. “But, for me, Loveland’s is the most special because there’s no one here, even on busy days, so a lot of the time I am skiing freshies alone on the cat-accessed terrain.”
Smiles all around. Photo courtesy Dustin Schaefer.
With the rapid progression of skiing and snowboarding, resorts have been working hard to maintain terrain parks that continue challenging and satisfying guests and pros alike. For the last article covering resort operations, I caught up with the supervisor for terrain park and cat operations at Keystone Ski Resort, Tony Wertin, 32.
Wertin was contracted to build the slopestyle course for the 2012 X Games and has setup terrain parks around Colorado and in California. When I showed up he was preparing for the Nike photo shoot and showed me what it takes to design and construct a world-class terrain park.
How many people are on staff and is previous training required?
We have 20 people total that work for the terrain park. There are nine of us that operate cats and on each day there are four to five people working.
No previous training it’s all on-the-job.
Preparing a new step-over feature for the Nike photo shoot.
If you want to build a quality halfpipe then you will need a cat with a knarly saw attached.
What’s a typical day on the job, and what goes into getting ready for the season and continuing forward?
We work from 3:30 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. During this shift we maintain the features that we have. We resurface and groom everything. If we want to change something we assign a project to one or two people to get done during the shift.
During the preseason we initially build a terrain park at the summit. This involves about 30 features and acts as our opening park. Then as soon as that is up and running, and there’s enough snow, we begin to move further down the mountain and build the A51 Terrain Park. This can take a solid two weeks of snowmaking and work to get this done. Then, as the season progresses, overnight we take everything that’s at the summit and move it down to mid mountain to open the more advanced park, which we usually open last. As we get more snow we can build bigger and bigger features. In photoshoot season (after closing in spring) we talk with the companies coming in and figure out a design for the features they would like to see. We then begin tearing down everything and rebuilding the features to what they specifically want, which is a mixture of rider design and our creativity.
How do you design features?
We get our designs through everyone that works in the terrain park. The creativity comes from a coworker’s idea or a spinoff of that idea to make it more unique. We don’t do specific blueprints for the regular park we typically gauge it. So, if it’s a 45-foot jump then we need a certain amount of landing that’s at least 30 degrees. Meanwhile, during the post season we work with the companies and use three-dimensional sketches for specific features and tweak them as needed before construction. Overall, in the small park jumps are as large as 15 feet, medium jumps range from 10 to 45 feet, and the large jumps go from 50 to 75 feet.
During the season we keep a book of ideas and during the summertime we build the more important features. We do the rail building and welding ourselves.
The planning three-dimensional sketch and then the final product. Photos courtesty Tony Wertin.
How long does it take to construct an average jump or rail? Can you explain the process?
An average jump, from scratch, and with all the snowmaking already finished, it would take about three days. If you want to construct a rail line, four or five can be done in a 10-hour shift per person.
In terms of the process, first, I would build the landing and then use ropes to make measurements and use a chainsaw to ensure crisp and clean lines. Then I would remove the excess snow from chain-sawing to create the perfect shape. Once I push up the take off, I rope it and chainsaw it to make it clean.
How do you keep progressing and staying ahead of other resorts?
Usually our staff does everything, but sometimes we take input from pro skiers and snowboarders. Our staff is constantly thinking of ways to push the envelope. We have different levels of skiers and snowboarders on staff, and everyone likes to ride different things. This makes it a lot easier because everyone likes riding different features allowing for specialization.
A skier in the A51 Terrain Park. Photo Courtesy Chad Schmidt.
How do you mitigate danger, especially with new features?
For every feature that we build it’s mandatory to have it tested. We make sure it’s safe before it’s open to the general public. Usually, people on the terrain park staff are the testers. I do a lot of them but not all of the big ones. Also, myself and two other leads visually inspect the work to ensure safety and if there is a problem the feature is removed. Lastly, we build a lot of the features (rails, etc.) during the summer and make sure they are safe before used on the mountain.
In what direction do you see terrain parks moving?
People want things that look scarier than in actuality. I think things are becoming more street and skateboard influenced as skating becomes more popular - being able to build a skate park on the mountain.
A snowboarder in the A51 Terrain Park. Photo Courtesty Chad Schmidt.
Riding the A51 Terrain Park. Photo courtesty Aaron Dodds.
What’s the most difficult part of the job that guests don’t necessarily see?
The most difficult part of the job is dealing with snowstorms. When it snows a lot, because most of the features are hard to maintain anyway, we have to, by hand, dig out a lot of the features so they do not get closer to the ground and push snow off the jumps so the landings do not flatten – we cannot use machines because they will not fit in certain areas.
MS Super Park finished product, looking crisp and clean. Photo courtesty Tony Wertin.
This piece is to stimulate discussion and it's not necessarily the view of OpenSnow.com.
Earlier this year, a speed flier wrapped himself around a tree and severely broke his leg in the backcountry near Winter Park. Unable to evacuate the skier, his friends left him wrapped in layers as they went for help. In sub-zero temperatures and darkness, members of Grand County Search and Rescue were called upon to snowshoe over 10 miles in knee to thigh deep snow to save the man. He was successfully extracted by the next morning.
After hearing that story I asked one of the members of the rescue team how much he was paid, and discovered he and the majority of the team were volunteers. Ninety nine percent of SAR members in Colorado are volunteers, and do it as a second job. Further, because many of the communities out of which SAR teams are based have low tax revenue, the majority of the costs are shouldered by the volunteers, as there is not consistent funding. Since the start of the recession, SAR has experienced an even worse budget dilemma, but because of the way teams operate, SAR has been able to continue working efficiently. Nevertheless, a rescue fee should be established to keep SAR teams from operating on small budgets, and to create greater recognition and public responsibility.
Members of the Alpine team prepare for a rescue.Courtesy Colorado Search and Rescue Board © 2007 Howard M. Paul.
Grand County Sheriff Patrol Lieutenant and SAR Liaison Neal Mcquarie, said that although the current system works well, budgeting is constantly a problem.
“In Grand County we’re pretty lucky as we have good support through the local network and the Sheriff’s Office, but I know funding is a big problem in other communities,” Mcquarie said. “Funding of equipment and maintenance is a constant juggling act. Teams are always looking for fundraisers and grants. So you never have a solid base to replace broken or worn out equipment.”
While SAR has operated well thus far, fundraising and grants can only be reliable to a certain point, especially with 40 teams in Colorado servicing a quickly growing population. By putting a small, but affordable price on a rescue, people are investing in their own safety; and, for those that act recklessly and require rescue, this fee can help prevent future negligent behavior.
Currently, the volunteer owns most of the gear used for missions, including rope, harnesses and even snowmobiles, all of which are costly to replace and maintain. Though, some counties have easier access to machines, as the sheriffs department, local outfitters, and the National Guard provide the necessary support. And, if needed, neighboring communities help one another when there is a lack of resources from gear to rescuers. Although a rescue has not yet been prevented due to broken equipment, as budgets shrink the hindrance of missions is a possibility. By creating a small SAR fee it will allow teams to better service and replace equipment, before a policy-changing tragedy occurs.
Even more, SAR largely relies on local fundraising, money or insurance from the county, and state grant funds. The main grants are the Fish and Game License Fund and the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card. When, for example, a boating or hunting license is purchased, a small surcharge is added to contribute to the fund. When a rescue card is purchased a portion of the revenue goes into a similar fund. Ultimately, if a SAR team incurs any expense on a mission, these funds serve to reimburse them. However, charitable contributions have significantly decreased as a result of the economic crisis, forcing teams to rely on state grants and strain budgets.
Howard Paul, of the Colorado Search and Rescue Board, also said the current system works, but funding across the state is stretched to a maximum.
“The teams in areas with greater populations have a larger population to draw from for funding,” Paul said. “But, some teams rely on as little as $2,000 per year to pay for gear and training, and it’s not easy.”
Although SAR has been able to operate by relying heavily on a mixture of inconsistent funding options, it’s important for the public to compromise before the impending budget issue becomes a problem. Charging a fixed fee for rescue, roughly a couple hundred dollars would be ideal because it’s not feasible to pay for all the man-hours. People currently pay for an ambulance ride, so it’s reasonable to charge a small fee for a rescue. If a person is willing to pay for an ambulance because they are injured playing, for instance, an intramural sport, how is that any different from paying a SAR fee? Moreover, this should be an amount that does not deter victims from calling 911 because they are fearful of the cost of rescue—a fee that merely demonstrates appreciation for the service, and would allow SAR to generate a more stable form of revenue, and improve service.
Rescuers form a probe line. Courtesy Colorado Search and Rescue Board ©2000 Howard M. Paul.
Lastly, in response to those that believe SAR is a luxury, and therefore, should not be funded with tax dollars, or have a cost, backcountry travelers that find themselves in trouble as a result of reckless or stupid behavior are uncommon for SAR missions, Paul said. Incidences resulting in tragedy or a harrowing story appear prevalent because they receive media coverage. The majority of missions occur during the summer, and involve a hiker with a twisted ankle or a hunter thrown from his horse.
Fortunately, for now, volunteers don’t view the job as a burden and are happy to remain a contingency for backcountry enthusiasts. But, volunteers can only cover so much of the cost. As long as the outdoors remains a way of life for many Coloradan’s, people will need to shoulder some accountability by not just simply being prepared for the environment, but also financially. As a result, it’s important to find a middle ground between money and idealism to solve this budget issue and demonstrate appreciation for SAR.
What do you think?
With hourly updates, visual weather data such as radar, and a snow cam showcasing Gnorm the powder Gnome, Revelstoke Mountain Resort is one of few resorts leading the way in snow and weather transparency.
Chad Hemphill, the assistant avalanche forecaster for Revelstoke Mountain Resort, said the resort has made it clear that providing the best data is important.
“We quantify the times, for example, snow since 4 p.m., and this prevents ambiguity in regards to when the snow fell,” Hemphill said. “Further, each day, we write a report about avalanche terrain, new snow and conditions. More specifically we talk about the wind in order to capture which places might have more snow rather than just putting a number down on a page because there’s more snow in a certain place.”
The first chart shows the data from the Ripper plot, updated every five minutes, and the second it the hourly information from the subpeak station. Photo Revelstoke Mountain Resort Website.
On the mountain are two different high-tech weather stations. One is at tree line, called the Ripper Plot, while the other sits subpeak. The Ripper plot records snow height over a 24-hour period, the high and low temperatures, as well as the dew point. The snow stake at this station sits in a sheltered position so as not to be affected by the wind. Meanwhile, the subpeak station records dew point, average temperature, wind speeds and gusts, and wind direction. All of the information from both stations is uploaded directly to the website. The Ripper Station updates every five minutes while the subpeak station does so on the hour. Whether a person is a weather geek or trying to decide to call in sick, this allows for a more comprehensive and interactive data collection.
Although the weather stations typically produce correct reports, to eliminate discrepancies, Hemphill and the other forecaster manually check the data everyday. This does not just involve checking snow height, but also manually correlating the snow and water equivalent.
“Some places will say for every millimeter of water equivalent they will multiply by a factor of 1.3 centimeters, because that’s their average snow density,” Hemphill said. “But, if you don’t measure manually, especially on the days with high density snow, then you’re going to be over reporting because the snow is more dense.”
This is a photo of the Ripper Weather Station. Photo Revelstoke Mountain Resort.
By considering density versus applying a formula to the results from a remote station, it keeps the amounts relativized as well as more honest. On top of snow stake location and other factors, this partly explains why many resorts develop a reputation for over reporting Hemphill said.
“We try to report it as accurately as possible, and if we see discrepancies with the numbers, we talk to the guys who run the website and update the numbers.”
Hemphill said presenting all of the information the forecasters use to the public has only fostered positive feedback.
“We get a lot of comments of appreciation, especially from locals, on accuracy even when it comes to the lower side of reporting.”
This is Gnorm the weather Gnorm. He stands 27 cm high. Guests can watch him become buried over the course of storms to see how mcuh snow has fallen. It's a creative snow stake cam. Photo Courtesy of Revelstoke Mountain Resort.