The view from the Last Dollar Hut in February 2015 shows the dry, bony conditions. (Photo by Allison Perry)

Was Winter 2015 Really Such A Bummer?

What Telski’s 2014-2015 season really means for skiers, the economy and the future…

By Allison Perry | Telluride

“I wish the resort was still open,” Telluride resident Matt Weldon remarked on a warm May 22, days after a late season storm dropped over a foot of snow at higher elevations throughout the San Juan Mountains.

Weldon (along with this reporter) had just skinned up the mountainside at Telluride Ski Resort to ski Westlake, an expert run in Telski’s Black Iron Bowl – a two to three hour approach for a single 15-minute run. The snow conditions were fantastic, and the experience was well worth the workout, but it “would have been more fun if the lifts were running,” Weldon lamented. “We could’ve done way more laps.”

Some of 2015’s bigger storms came well after the resort had closed for the 2015 season. During mid-to-late May it was not uncommon to see skiers skinning up the resort or tackling the backcountry to earn late season powder turns.

Bemoaning Telski’s early closing date is commonplace among locals. Telluride’s chairs stop turning in early April, while most other resorts in Colorado stay open weeks, or even months later. This year the feeling was especially pronounced, as epic late season storms beckoned skiers who felt shortchanged by a fickle and subpar ski season on the resort to rise before dawn to ascend thousands of feet to find good snow.

The 2015 season left many skiers wondering if sporadic snowfall, interspersed with prolonged dry spells and unseasonably warm temperatures, has become the new winter norm for the region.

While big storms did bookend the 2015 season, including a December blizzard and a late February storm that deposited more than four feet of snow across some parts of the region, many skiers felt the “season” was not so much as season as it was a long drought interspersed by a few weeks of good skiing made even more frustrating by high avalanche danger and a stampeding frenzy of powder-starved locals waiting to bum rush each chairlift on pow days.

“I got the flu for a week in February so I missed the entire season,” joked Telluride resident Sarah Iverson, belying the sentiment of a growing number of locals who are worried that climate change has begun to ruin skiing for good.

“I’m moving to Alaska,” one disgruntled local was overheard saying as he grimly sipped a PBR at Gorrono Ranch in a tee shirt on a January afternoon that could easily have been confused for June.

Not surprisingly, conversations about climate change were ubiquitous around Telluride during the 2015 ski season, and around the country as ski resorts throughout Colorado, Utah and California experienced funky weather patterns and dry spells of varying magnitude.

As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy stated in a recent story in Ski Magazine Online, “Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life.” 

“For the winter sports industry, climate change looks abysmal,” the same story asserted. “In scientific research…the evidence seems to be clear: decreasing snowpack, shorter seasons, warming winter temperatures, and erratic weather patterns, including extreme storms, droughts and precipitation.”

A Teton Gravity Research opinion column came to much the same conclusion. “Temperature wise, by 2100, you can click and drag Aspen to Amarillo, Texas,” the columnist opines, reporting on the findings of two third-party scientific studies (commissioned by Aspen and Park City) of what the future ski town looks like on a warmed planet.

Signs of a warming climate already abound, the columnist reports: “Spring snowmelt arrives in the Lake Tahoe area two and a half weeks earlier now than it did in 1961 and the past decade is already the warmest on record. Every decade is now warmer than the last, and extreme weather events have become the norm. There is no debate. Climate change is already happening in our mountains and we’re seeing it firsthand.”

Finally, the story posits, “Climate change won’t just change the physical qualities of our mountain towns, it will change their economies too. Truckee, Aspen, Park City, and Telluride: these are climate dependent communities, built on the revenue that winter brings.”

Skinning up the road to the Last Dollar hut in February 2015 was an alternative activity to skiing at Telluride Ski Resort, which was experiencing dry, wind-swept conditions. (Photo by Allison Perry)

Skinning up the road to the Last Dollar hut in February 2015 was an alternative activity to skiing at Telluride Ski Resort, which was experiencing dry, wind-swept conditions. (Photo by Allison Perry)

Telski’s Take on Climate Change

These disturbing new weather patterns have many Telluridians wondering whether Telski is willing and able to adapt.

So what does Telski have to say about all of this? What does this past season really mean, and what might the future hold if temperatures keep rising and the weather Telluride relies so heavily on to drive its economy continues its departures from normal and predictable patterns?

San Juan Independent got in touch with Telski’s Executive Director of Planning, Jeff Proteau, and Communications Manager Shannon Gibbs for some answers.

Both point out that, contrary to public perception, “This season was [actually] an average one for snowfall, with 180 inches of snow between opening and closing day.”

Not only that, the snow drought of January and much of February did not scare off visitors. In fact, Gibbs reported, “We again saw growth in the number of skier visits over last year [and] this year was a record in terms of being able to open the most amount of terrain early season as compared to years past, thanks to early-season snowfall and cold, dry temperatures that allowed for snowmaking.”

While skiers and snowboarders tend to think in terms of instant gratification (or lack thereof), the higher-ups at Telluride Ski Resort think more in terms of actual numbers. And quite simply, Gibbs and Proteau stressed, the numbers do not yet indicate that Telluride is really seeing much of a dwindling snowpack.

When it comes to the quality of a ski season, however, numbers can be slightly misleading and while Proteau emphasized that Telski is not, at least empirically, experiencing a decrease in snowfall he did acknowledge that  “[It is]because of spring storms, [that] our snowpack is back close to average levels.”

Spring storms may have saved the season to some extent, but what skiers and snowboarders crave is steady snowfall throughout the season. In other words, “decreasing snowpack” might have different meanings to locals looking for a powdery December and January than they do to Telski higher-ups who are keeping an eye on cumulative numbers.

What locals and passholders want to know, then, is what the resort’s response will be if the trend in the snowpack continues to come in waves of snow and drought.

“We keep an eye on snowpack trends, and should a trend emerge that points to continued decreasing snowpack, then we will work with the community and other stakeholders to address it,” Proteau said. “But based on how the resort is doing and what we’ve seen over the past several years, this isn’t an issue that is causing us to speak in hypotheticals at this time.”

And while Telski is aware of the potentially devastating effects of climate change on ski resorts, “We try not to think in terms of hypotheticals,” Gibbs said. “We are tackling the problem by doing what we can to reduce our own global footprint,” by transitioning to more energy-efficient snowmaking machines and fuel-efficient ATVs, snowmobiles, snow-cats and other off-road vehicles.

Despite their reluctance to address hypothetical global warming scenarios, Proteau and Gibbs did shed some light on one question that has plagued Telluride ski bums for years and has come to the forefront this year as May shaped up to be one of the best snow months of the season: would the resort ever be willing to reconsider its closing date or postpone its start date due to new weather patterns?

The opening and closing dates are dependent on a number of things that aren’t just related to snowfall,” Gibbs explained. “The cost to run the resort versus the return on investment of staying open later has an impact on when we open and close as a resort. But, she conceded, the resort would be willing to consider staying open later into the spring season down the road, if the current trend continues to assert itself.

This year we had a record in terms of the amount of terrain we were opening early in the season thanks to significant snowfall earlier in the year as well as cold and dry conditions that were favorable for snowmaking” Proteau added. Only if a declining trend in early season snowfall occurred would the resort consider postponing its opening date.

Bushwacker ski run was deep with powder and ready for first tracks after the May 2015 snows. (Photo by Allison Perry)

Bushwacker ski run was deep with powder and ready for first tracks after the May 2015 snows. (Photo by Allison Perry)

Sales Tax and Visitor Numbers Remain Healthy

Another important component to any discussion about climate change in a ski town is the economy. When the weather is wonky, it can’t help but have an effect on the economy.

This year, however, the weather did not discourage tourists so much as it might have jaded some locals.

According to the Town of Telluride’s Sales Tax Excise Report, December 2014 brought in $725,599 compared to $574,157 in 2013 and $528,527 in 2012 for that month. January of 2015 (almost the entirety of which was warm and dry) yielded $529,198 in sales tax for the town, while 2014 rang in $507,802 and 2013 $439,157 correspondingly. Looking back even farther, year over year, 2014 and 2015 report higher sales tax numbers during the “on” winter months than any other year.

Proteau pointed out that the snowfall Telluride did receive during 2015 was more than enough to get visitors talking, and that between the handful of fruitful storms, strategic snow management and typical bluebird conditions Southwest Colorado is known for, visitor feedback about the ski season was positive.

That said,” he continued, “We always market ourselves as a destination resort with more to offer than just skiing.”

The Town of Telluride’s summer sales tax numbers reinforce the fact that skiing is not the only thing that attracts tourists to the area.

June, July and August of 2014, for example, brought in more sales tax revenue than January and February of that year, and December, a holiday month, only brought in a bit more at $725,599 than did July at $617,813.

According to Gibbs, regardless of climate change or snowfall and certainly not because of it, Telski will continue to bone up on its offerings as a well-rounded destination resort rather than a one-stop-shop for skiers and skiers only.

“Ski resorts as a whole are working to provide more amenities for visitors year-round,” she explained, which is “partially due to the U.S. Forest Service finalizing policy guidelines last year that opened opportunities for ski areas to promote year-round recreation activities as part of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act. This act will help promote more of a year-round economy and we are looking into how we can grow our summer offerings in the coming years.”

The view from the Last Dollar Hut in February 2015 shows the dry, bony conditions. (Photo by Allison Perry)

The view from the Last Dollar Hut in February 2015 evidences the dry, bony conditions of that month. (Photo by Allison Perry)

But What of the Ski Bum?

Environmentalists might find some comfort in Telski’s commitment not to play a part in exacerbating climate change and environmental distress, as well as in the fact that overall snowpack has remained average.

Business owners and their employees can perhaps rest easy knowing that their livelihood does not solely depend on the mercy of the snow gods, and that Telski and the Town of Telluride are adept at marketing themselves to tourists – the lifeblood of the regional economy – regardless of the weather or season.

But what of the ski bum? The local who lives here to ski in the winter, and bike in the summer? Where is her silver lining? Telski can’t change the weather, though a willingness to consider staying open later in the season might be of some consolation if the situation becomes dire enough.

But for those of us who prefer our winter in winter, while the lifts are still running and ski patrol is still throwing bombs, while the snow is still light, fluffy and cold, when skiing in a t-shirt would be utterly unthinkable, we might just have to cross our fingers and hold our breath for 2016.

And if that doesn’t work? Well…there’s always Alaska.

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About the Author

Allison Perry

Allison Perry was born and raised in New York City and earned a BA in Political Science from The University Of Wisconsin - Madison and a JD at Case Western Reserve University School Of Law before moving to Alaska with the hopes of becoming the next Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. Although she went so far as to pass the Bar Exam in Sarah Palin's playground, she became disillusioned with law and decided to pursue her dream of becoming a journalist and a photographer. She moved to Colorado in 2010 and after a few years ski-bumming and retailing, she was finally able to transform her freelance writing into a full time career at The Watch. Allison believes local journalism is an essential part of living in a small town, and strives to write objectively, in plain English, with a critical eye and a dash of sarcasm here and there. She is stoked to be a part of the San Juan Independent.