EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - Ski resorts across the West are facing dismal natural snow conditions and rumors about everything from resorts closing to workers getting laid off.
And the Vail Valley is no different - similar rumors have been circulating about Vail and Beaver Creek, many of which are untrue. While no one from either resort can deny that the natural snow conditions so far this winter have been beyond disappointing, resort officials say they're doing everything they can to make the skiing experience enjoyable.
Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek Resort are still making snow - the resorts have not run out of water and have not reached some kind of snowmaking deadline.
In fact, there is no deadline for snowmaking at either resort, said Don Dressler, U.S. Forest Service snow ranger with the Eagle/Holy Cross ranger district. The availability of water each resort can use is based on minimum stream flow requirements from the local rivers and streams, not on some magic number of gallons per year or any time limit.
When snowmaking causes a dip below stream flow minimums, Vail Resorts can pull water from its reservoirs for snowmaking. Dressler said he's never heard of a case when the reservoirs become depleted because of snowmaking.
The resorts are required to replace what they take out of the streams, which can become a complicated equation as water that is made into snow is basically sitting in storage before it's returned later. Dressler said that about 75 percent of the water made into snow will return to the basin it's made from when the snow melts.
Vail and Beaver Creek are both keeping snowmaking operations limited to nighttime right now, mainly because that's when temperatures are the most favorable for making snow. Just because skiers and snowboarders aren't seeing snowmaking going on during the daytime, it doesn't mean it isn't happening.
"We're still making snow," Vail Mountain spokeswoman Liz Biebl said. "At this point our main focus is providing as good a quality product as we can for our guests, and however snowmaking can play into that, we'll use it."
Vail Mountain's snowmaking covers 461 acres of terrain. Much of the snowmaking capabilities are fixed to specific areas, but Biebl said the resort has some flexibility and can move some of the hoses around.
At Beaver Creek, where there's 800 acres of snowmaking, the guns are still blasting throughout the night, too.
Beaver Creek spokeswoman Jen Brown said snowmaking and snowcat crews are working a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift to make sure the snow surface is as good as it can be each day.
"Really these (crews) are the unsung heroes," Brown said. "... We want to assure the community and our guests that we are doing everything in our power to provide the best possible snow surface."
All of Beaver Creek's chairlifts are running, and the resort has about 70 percent of its terrain open.
"We're fortunate to have the investment in technology that we do so we can provide the snowmaking we're providing," Brown said.
Snowmaking in January isn't unheard of - Brown said the resort's initial plans for the 2011-12 winter included snowmaking through January. But the amount of natural snowfall has brought snowmaking into the spotlight.
Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz told the Vail Homeowners Association last week that the company's guest satisfaction scores are comparable to last year. He said people know the company and the community are doing everything in their power to make the experience as good as it can be. And, Katz said the company remains committed to the guest experience regardless of what obstacles may get in the way.
"To announce a new gondola - that's obviously not a cheap thing to add - in the middle of what's probably a 30-year low in snowfall," Katz said. "Chris (Jarnot, Vail Mountain chief operating officer) and John (Garnsey, Vail Resorts co-president) and I were talking about it and it's probably about 30 years ago the last time the Back Bowls weren't opened for New Year's, so even in the middle of that environment, the company is very fortunate to have the flexibility to look out ahead to make those kinds of capital commitments."
The company has tried to respond to snow concerns via its Facebook pages for each resort. On the Vail Mountain page, skiers have written comments in recent days asking about the conditions. In one response to a picture posted from the Back Bowls showing little-to-no snow coverage, Vail Mountain said "there's really no sugarcoating a rough snow year, especially in this picture taken from sun-facing aspects."
The resort continues to boast that it has more than 1,500 acres open, 21 lifts and more than 110 trails, however.
Biebl confirmed that Vail Mountain has closed some runs - Blue Ox, Highline and Roger's, and also the Brisk Walk catwalk - but has added other terrain at Golden Peak around the terrain park. Brown said Beaver Creek has also closed Ripsaw and Cataract in Rose Bowl.
The weather forecast for the next week or so shows sunshine, aside from a slight chance of snow Saturday. Accuweather.com Meteorologist Ken Clark said computer models, which he admits are not always accurate, show no precipitation in the Vail area for the next two weeks.
"The pattern is pretty well locked in for the next two weeks, but the long range models can have huge errors," Clark said. "But if they're to be believed, the storm track will continue with considerably below-normal precipitation for all Western Colorado mountains."
Weather forecasters are still calling this winter a weak-to-moderate La Nina, which means there are equal chances for above average and below average precipitation around Vail.
In La Nina weather cycles, storms typically come in from the Pacific Northwest, which has also had a dryer than average winter so far, Clark said.
"It's been very, very dry in the Northwest, too. The only places that have had relatively OK snowfall is in Washington state - Utah ski areas are horrible; California ski areas are horrible," Clark said. "Seattle is only at 63 percent of normal rainfall since the beginning of November, and 46 percent (of normal) since the beginning of December."
Meteorologist Joel Gratz, who runs the opensnow.com powder forecast website, said models show a shift in the weather pattern around Jan. 15. Like Clark, Gratz has little confidence in the accuracy of the long range models, however.
"The weather pattern is stuck in a rut," Gratz wrote in a response to a Web comment. "Usually the rut only lasts 4-8 weeks, but this one doesn't seem to want to budge."
Vail Resorts spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga said the company will continue to make snow as long as it needs to, which based on the weather models, could be a while.
"We're going to continue to make snow as long as it will help improve the conditions for our guests," Ladyga said. "Our snowmakers are working around the clock to make snow whenever the temperatures allow so that we can continue to open more and more terrain."
Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.