Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Weirdness of the ski business Weirdness of the ski business

This week I dropped by the employee center at Keystone ski area to pick up a bunch of "Lords of Dog Town" T-shirts. Apparently, Vail Resorts, which owns Keystone, had something to do with making the movie, and ended up with a bunch of promo T-shirts. What I suspected was right - they were out of boys' sizes, but still had girls' sizes, which is why I stopped by. My daughter is going to give them to her girlfriends for an end of school year present.

But what was interesting is that of the two runs visible that drop into the base area there, one of them, Go-Devil still has solid snow on it all the way to the bottom. In other words, it is still entirely skiable, or would be if the area were open. It isn't, and hasn't been for a month now.

Keystone has been closed for a month now. Indeed, this year it closed a week before Vail did, despite having a base almost 1,500 feet higher. I worked up until about the end, and the area easily had another couple of weeks of good skiing left - before either the snow melted or it became too slushy to ski easily.

Yet, at the beginning of the season, they struggle to get one run open from the top of the first left to the bottom - well, really, given how the first mountain is organized, from the top, since they need to have that open to run the mountain. Such niceties as ski patrol, etc.

My brother terms this at the areas that open early, as they all try to, the "Ribbon of Death". At Keystone and the other front range Colorado resorts, you will typically have that one run open, top to bottom, and that is it. They will try to get it open as soon as possible, possibly as early as Halloween. And when they open it, it will be solid people, top to bottom. Practically unskiable.

The last two seasons I haven't gotten onto skis until Mountain Watch has gotten going, and that is usually about the first week or so of December. By then, most of the front mountain is open. But three seasons ago, I started at Copper Mountain. About three weeks into the season there, I went to opening day at Keystone. It was so bad, that after one run, top to bottom, I packed up my skis and went to Copper for the rest of the day.

So, why open so early when the skiing is marginal at best. Probably several steps below that. But close early enough that the mountain is probably skiable for maybe another month?

The answer is that when it gets warm in Denver, most of the front range skiers go on to do something else. Clear Creek is full every afternoon with kayaks. The bike paths are spilling over with bikes, skaters, etc. You get the picture.

Those front range skiers who still want to ski pretty much mostly move up to A-Basin at the first of April. It is a tradition dating back at least since I was in high school in the later 1960s. People fight for beach side property (i.e. a parking space up against the slope) where they can stake their dogs (leash law strictly enforced), set up their grill, law chairs, cooler, etc. You get the picture. Indeed, Monday, as I drove over Loveland Pass, after picking up those T-shirts, I noticed that the parking lots at A-Basin were absolutely full. This is a weekday in May. Making things worse, all those Buddy Passes and Colorado Passes that allowed all those front range skiers to ski Keystone and Breckenridge (and occasionally Vail and Beaver Creek) this year work at A-Basin. This is a holdover from before Vail bought Keystone and Breck, and the later two owned A-Basin. They were forced to sell of one area for antitrust reasons to complete the merger.

On the other hand, in the fall, everyone in the front range has had all summer to think about skiing. The yearly Warren Miller movie has been through. The ski swaps are pretty much over. Ditto for Sniagrab (Bargains spelled backwards) - the yearly Gart Brother's super ski sale. So, everyone is ready to ski. Really ready. Ready enough to put life and limb at serious threat of injury just to get on their skis or boards.

I should add that one more reason that Keystone closes early is that it is superbly poorly designed, esp. for late season skiing. It is really a series of three mountains, wherein you have to traverse the first to get to the second, and that one to get to the third, which is apparently where the best late season snow is. But this means running a minimum of four lifts, probably six, and three ski patrol locations, etc., all for a minimal number of paying customers.

So, that most of why Keystone opens every year before it should, and closes well before the snow conditions make it.

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