EAGLE COUNTY - This season, like the last one, was one for the record books.
On the heels of the best snow year ever, the 2011-12 season began with promise. La Nina had been more than gracious to the valley in 2010-11, and the La Nina weather pattern was forecast to return.
In Vail, La Nina had always been kind, but this winter would be different.
Skiers and riders were optimistic as of Opening Day. The bountiful snow from the previous season had everyone in good
As of Nov. 30, it seemed that Europe was the place suffering from low snow, as the World Cup races scheduled for Val d'Isere, France, were canceled and moved to Beaver Creek, extending Beaver Creek's Birds of Prey race week by three days. Low temperatures had meant both Vail and Beaver Creek were able to keep their snow guns blasting, leaving great conditions for the World Cup races and also laying down an important base.
Then December came, and the weather patterns that favored southern Colorado remained. Skiers and snowboarders enjoyed the terrain that was available at Vail and Beaver Creek, with local residents expressing disappointment in the conditions, while destination guests - especially those from the East Coast - enjoyed groomed runs and Colorado-style skiing. One woman commented that she didn't understand what all the fuss from the local residents was about, as she thought the skiing was fantastic.
Skier visit numbers through Jan. 2, compared with the same time period in 2010-11, showed a 15.3 percent drop across Vail Resorts' six mountain resorts in Colorado and Lake Tahoe. At the time, CEO Rob Katz called the weather up until that point in the season "very unusual."
"For the first time in 30 years, a lack of snow has not allowed us to open the Back Bowls in Vail as of Jan. 6 2012, and for the first time since the late 1800s, it did not snow at all in Tahoe in December," Katz said in a statement.
The company was able to report revenue increases, however, including lift-ticket revenues that were up by 0.6 percent and ski-school revenue up 0.9 percent. Dining revenues were down, as many on-mountain restaurants weren't open as of early January because of the snow
A turnaround in store?
Things did begin to change, however. There was enough snow to open the Back Bowls piece by piece, with portions of Blue Sky Basin opening Jan. 20. Hundreds gathered at the base of Chair 37 waiting for powder turns that Friday.
Skiers and riders finally had some deep snow to enjoy. You could hear the cheering as people skied through it. It seemed like winter had truly arrived.
Vail Resorts announced its second-quarter earnings, covering the months of December, January and February, in early March.
The company spent $2.2 million more on snowmaking this season than it had the year before. The company also reported a 12 percent increase in pass sales and a 13.8 percent increase in average daily rates at its company-owned hotels.
Skier visits for the quarter, however, were down 8.8 percent at the company's Colorado ski areas.
There had also been enough snow in January to create dangerous avalanche conditions that would persist well into February. In mid-January, four people were killed in separate avalanches in Colorado over a span of just four days, proving the snowpack's weaknesses. As of Saturday, there have been seven total avalanche deaths in the state this season.
The snowpack in the Colorado River Basin, Eagle County's river basin, started February at 69 percent of average and finished off the month at about 75 percent of average. The percentage is the snow-water equivalent, or the amount of water in the snowpack, so it doesn't necessarily reflect snow depth.
As of March 27, the basin needed 740 percent of its average snowpack to arrive before April 14. It didn't happen.
Negative news aside, skiers and snowboarders made the best of a season that was beyond anyone's control.
Cesar Hermosillo, of Minturn, holds the third position on the Epic Mix Leaderboard. He was skiing Saturday at Vail - it was his 141st day on the mountain this season and he approached 5.8 million vertical feet Saturday.
"Despite the low snowpack, it's actually been a pretty phenomenal season," Hermosillo said. "I'm a tree skier, so I haven't been able to get in the trees as much, but I was able to practice more tricks, practice freeskiing."
Hermosillo said he was looking forward to the forecast snow this weekend. More snow is always good, he said.
"I'm never happy the season's over," he said. "I love skiing, regardless of the conditions."
Skiers and snowboarders commented on the Vail Daily's Facebook page that the season was "forgettable" and "frustrating." But there were optimistic comments, too.
"I haven't lived out there since 2000," Jim Jackson wrote. "Enjoy what ya have. I wish I was there."
Julia Denault Parker commended the Vail Resorts mountain-operations crews for their work this season. She said the crews "should be handsomely rewarded for keeping the mountain in as good of shape as possible."
"Awesome job, guys," Denault Parker wrote.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.