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Vail opens with a bang

Apparently Mother Nature didn’t get the memo.A languishing economy has meant a slow start to the ski season at Vail the last couple of years, with fewer hires until the snow starts seriously flying. That model worked well last season in the wake of 9/11 and with little natural snow before Thanksgiving.But this year the slower “ramp-up” has meant a mad scramble by mountain ops crews to whip the hill into shape for an historically unprecedented start of the season.Vail Mountain opens Saturday, Nov. 16 six days ahead of schedule with 10 lifts serving 2,330 acres of terrain, including Sun Up and Sun Down bowls and most of the front side of the mountain.By Nov. 23, more terrain comes on line with Game Creek Bowl, and on Wednesday, Nov. 27, virtually the entire mountain will be open, with Blue Sky Basin, China Bowl and Tea Cup Bowl increasing the total skiable acreage to more than 5,000.More than seven feet of snow have fallen since Nov. 1, prompting resort officials to lift all pass restrictions for the Thanksgiving weekend (Nov. 29-30). Beaver Creek is sticking to its original opening schedule, hosting national team race training until it opens for the season with 950 acres on Nov. 23.Not bad considering that by Thanksgiving Day last season there had been virtually no measurable natural snowfall. In fact, the past three or four ski seasons have been at or well below historical averages.A desperately dry summer and a flagging economy had Vail Resorts executives spending most of the fall slashing budgets rather than gearing up for the best early season conditions in at least a decade. Now crews are engaged in a crazed race to groom runs, test lifts and make even more snow.”In our short-term memory it’s never snowed like this the first 10 days of November,” Vail Chief Operating Officer Bill Jensen says. “If someone had called us and told us it would (snow like this), then maybe we could have changed some things.”Even as lift operators were still being trained and snowmaking crews were pumping the synthetic stuff on cat tracks and other high-traffic areas, maintenance workers were faced with an even larger challenge last week, Jensen says. A defective bull-wheel bearing on the Vista Bahn Express, the main quad lift out of Vail Village, meant that lift was in danger of not running on opening day.Crisis averted, but barely, Jensen says, adding he expects record crowds for Saturday’s opening and that Vista Bahn will be in peak operating condition.But an abundance of snow and terrain are good problems to have, he adds, emphasizing that the resort is not rushing to open limited terrain, but instead will offer the most skiable acreage of any resort in North America on opening day.Some local skiers and merchants have been grousing that at least a few runs and lifts could have been up and running last weekend.”I’m pissed,” says a local snowboarder who’s been hiking up and riding down for more than a week and asked to remain anonymous. “They could have had a few runs open for the locals at least a week ago.”But Jensen says that simply wasn’t feasible given the company’s slower ramp-up to the season these days. Training staff and preparing the mountain, particularly blowing as much snow as possible in high-traffic areas before they’re hit hard by skiers, takes precedence over opening Born Free run for public relations purposes.”A lot of this has to do with our ramp-up,” says Jensen. “It’s a product of Sept. 11. We operated our business that way last year and we actually discovered that it was a schedule that was more in tune with what we normally experience. None of us could ever have anticipated that we would have had these kinds of snow conditions this early in the season.” Vail has received 89 inches of snow at the mid-mountain marker as of Nov. 1, for a settled base of 34 inches at Mid-Vail, and has already exceeded the November average amount of snowfall. Nearly a foot fell overnight Wednesday, Nov. 13, with another storm forecast for Friday.”Based on what we had experienced over the last five years, no one had anticipated, especially after a drought summer, that we would see a return to the snow conditions of the 1980s and early 1990s,” Jensen says, referring to epic seasons that saw opening days as early as Nov. 6.Some merchants say Vail is right on schedule and shouldn’t rush to open runs.”In past years when they’ve forced it and opened Nov. 7th or 8th, we all scurry to get open, but from a business standpoint it didn’t justify bringing on a full staff,” says Bill Jewitt, a Vail Town Council member and owner of Bart and Yeti’s bar and restaurant in Lionshead. “You get a few people from Denver, and of course they don’t spend as much money as destination skiers.”There’s value in getting everyone in town happy and excited about skiing. But I’m not convinced that it brings any business to town. To me it seems like it’s more a public relations value for Vail Resorts to get the word out to people who haven’t booked for Thanksgiving or early December.”That’s certainly how Copper Mountain, owned by Vail rival Intrawest, views an early opening.”Absolutely,” says Copper spokeswoman Beth Jahnigen. “It’s nice to get the season rolling and pick up momentum as early as possible. We feel that we deliver a high quality early season product, so, yes, we definitely emphasize (opening early).”Copper, which relies much more heavily on Front Range day skiers than Vail, opened Nov. 1 this year and was the first in the nation to open last ski season, when it kicked things off in mid-October for a fundraiser.But Steve Sheridan, another Lionshead businessman, whose Performance Sports ski shop stands to benefit the most from the Eagle Bahn Gondola cranking up, says there’s no hurry. While he’s glad to be swamped with people bringing in their skis to be tuned by Saturday, he says people were spoiled by early November openings in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and he points out that the mountain frequently wasn’t open by Thanksgiving in the ’70s and early ’80s.”Everybody expects too much; this is a huge bonus,” Sheridan says of this season’s ahead-of-schedule opening. “I think the timing’s perfect; don’t open up unless you’re ready. A ribbon of death with 5,000 people is not my idea of skiing.”The main thing, Sheridan says, is to get psyched for Saturday.”If you’re not psyched, you’re crazy,” Sheridan says. “It’s the best I can remember. I hiked up Vail on Sunday and PHQ (patrol headquarters at the top of the mountain) looked like the middle of February, with a settled base of four or five feet. In fact, I don’t think it was that good even in February last year. The mountain is buffed better than it was all of last year probably.”


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