October 8, 2011
WOLF CREEK SKI AREA - The ski season in America officially began Saturday.
It was announced not with the din of snow-making machines pasting a path of man-made snow between dirt and rocks, but the distant whoops of avalanche-control bombs.
And accompanied by heaps of powder.
Saturday, 1,500 skiers and snowboarders from across the region converged on remote Wolf Creek Ski Area, four hours from Colorado Springs, for the most memorable ski season opening in recent memory.
Every year, the Interstate 70-corridor ski areas Loveland and Arapahoe Basin compete to make enough snow for an 18-inch base on one or two ski runs to open first.
But as both were firing up snow guns for the first time Thursday, an autumn storm was dumping 3 feet of snow on Wolf Creek, in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado.
In a coup that will long be remembered in skiing circles, Wolf Creek announced it would be the first resort in the U.S. to open, the earliest opening in resort history.
“Despite the fact Loveland or A-Basin are often first, we’re usually right behind them,” said vice president Roseanne Pitcher.
After another 8 inches of snow fell Friday night, cries of joy echoed through Wolf Creek's pines all day.
Skiers talked about the conditions in hushed tones.
“This is a very rare treat,” said Charles Vogel, who drove 6 hours from the Western Slope. “I grew up in Colorado. I’ve been skiing since I was 4 years old, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“This is one of those days that I’m going to remember for years to come,” said Drew Petersen, of Silverthorne. “It’s definitely worth the drive, and I’ve got a smile on my face that hopefully lasts for a while.”
Pitcher said Wolf Creek decided to open Thursday when it hadn't stopped snowing for 24 hours and the team realized it was a heavy, wet snow that would lay down a good base.
In weather-speak, it was a moist southwest flow ahead of a strong upper-level system, said Paul Wolyn, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pueblo.
It’s the kind of storm that gives Wolf Creek the most snow of any resort in Colorado. While the area is largely unknown outside Colorado, it is beloved by powder hounds.
“When it snows, it snows hard. They’re prone to getting several-foot dumps,” Wolyn said.
While the aspens below were still golden, it felt nothing like fall at the resort Saturday. The landscape and trees were covered in white, and while rocks penetrated the snow, skiers reported few scrapes.
The traditional resorts competing for opening-day honors – which got only a couple inches out of the Thursday storm - congratulated their southern neighbor.
“Definitely kudos to them. I think that’s great. I was even thinking Sunday might be a great day to go. Lots of powder,” said A-Basin spokeswoman Leigh Hierholzer.
But the two northern rivals said their race is to open and stay open.
“When we’re going to open, we’re going to open and be open every day until early May,” said Loveland spokesman John Sellers. “We’ll let the rivalry continue with A-Basin and we’ll see what happens in the next couple weeks.”
With snow-making capacity for just the bunny slope, and warmer, drier weather in the forecast, Pitcher acknowledged Wolf Creek will probably have to close and await better weather. The ski area will be open Sunday and managers will decide then whether Wolf Creek can remain open.
But for one weekend anyway, the little family-owned ski area was the king of the skiing universe.
Said Pitcher, “I think it’s great. I think we deserve the recognition.”