Just a week ago, the mountains of northern Utah were dry, soft and brown, a strange feeling for December in a place said to be world famous for its snow.
On Saturday, however, central Wasatch was blanketed in the icy blanket of winter. Many ski areas were in full swing, welcoming crowds of skiers, locals and tourists.
The infusion of snowfall and chilly temperatures just before the holidays prompted sighs of relief for Utah’s billion-dollar ski industry.
âThe snow is just right,â said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, the industry’s marketing arm. âIt doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived here, you worry. Will there be enough snow this year? That can change quickly and it is. It is a winter paradise.
On Saturday afternoon, Solitude Mountain Resort, which received 31 inches in the last snowstorm, had more than half of its grounds open and everything but the Honeycomb Return elevator running, according to spokesperson Sara Huey.
But there are two more wild cards looming for Utah’s ski season: the country’s labor shortage and a variant-induced COVID-19 resurgence. However, neither appears to be disrupting operations at this point, according to officials at the resort.
âWe’re doing pretty well on staffing. We have increased our minimum wage to $ 15 an hour. It was helpful, âsaid Huey, who was expecting a full house at the Big Cottonwood Canyon complex on Saturday. âA ski area always has positions posted for servers, shuttle drivers, stuff like that. We are beyond the bare minimum for operations.
While the Cottonwood Canyons stations have most of their terrain open under a 5 foot snow base, the Wasatch Back stations are not so blessed. Terrain options in Deer Valley and Park City remain limited due to poor coverage, but that is expected to change with more snow arriving this week.
As of Saturday, Park City Mountain Resort had only opened 33 of its 356 trails and none of its snow parks, serving 17 of its 42 lifts. Alta, on the other hand, operated its five ski lifts with 84 of its 116 pistes open.
“The priority of the stations is to open the field,” said Rafferty. “They’re going to be lacking in other areas to keep the mountain open.”
Park City’s ski terrain is so vast – roughly 7,300 acres stretching from Jupiter Bowl in the north to Murdock Peak – that 9% of it still rivals other Utah ski areas. At Solitude, at least 40 of its 82 named trails are open.
âHoneycomb, Highway to Heaven, Evergreen Peaks, those areas around our borders, it will depend on the snow cover,â Huey said. âWhen the snow comes, it will also depend on the avalanche risk. As the snow settles, it depends on the capacity of [the ski patrol] to reliably mitigate this danger in order to [that] we can open these areas for skiing within the limits.
And while last week’s storm was a welcome break from dry weather, much of the state remains in extreme drought. Utah’s snowpack is still only about three-quarters of the average for this time of year, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The winter of 2020-21 produced one of the thinnest snow packs on record, leaving Utah’s reservoirs seriously depleted and bony slopes, but skiers filled the resorts like never before. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, or perhaps because of it, last winter saw a record 5.3 million skier visits to Utah, according to Ski Utah.
Barring a pandemic lockdown, the state should expect the same this year.
âThe travel trends we’ve seen indicate that people are eager to take a ski vacation this year,â said Alison Palmintere, Director of Communications for Ski Utah. âWe have resorts that can be driven from other states. We are delighted that the borders are open and we are also delighted to welcome back some of our international visitors. “
Meanwhile, advance reservations are strong, according to Rafferty.
âIt’s misleading to compare with last year. These were last minute reservations. People weren’t sure what to expect, âRafferty said. “People [this year] are more comfortable taking the plane for travel. It’s good for the economy. These destination skiers spend three times as much as local skiers, renting skis, going out to eat.
With the return of snowfall, the avalanche risk increased, which was rated “considerable” across Wasatch by the Utah Avalanche Center.
“Today the crash is written all over the place,” forecaster Drew Hardesty wrote in Saturday’s forecast. Man-initiated landslides hundreds of feet in diameter and 2 to 4 feet in depth “are likely” on steep slopes trending northwest to east, the forecasts warned.
In fact, a slide on Friday buried a skier in Big Cottonwood Canyon’s Silver Fork. His two companions were able to rescue him unharmed after 10 painful minutes in the snow, the center reported.