Skiers howling for Wolf Creek

By: The Gazette
February 3, 2010
photo - Scott Wickberg of Denver rides Alberta Peak into Step Bowl while visiting Wolf Creek Ski Area Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010. Wickberg's family has a home in South Fork so he and his brother decided to follow the snow to the southern Colorado ski area.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE
Scott Wickberg of Denver rides Alberta Peak into Step Bowl while visiting Wolf Creek Ski Area Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010. Wickberg's family has a home in South Fork so he and his brother decided to follow the snow to the southern Colorado ski area. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE 

WOLF CREEK SKI AREA - “It’s all powder!Come on!”

Karla Yahn, atop the Knife Ridge on a sheer chute lined with jagged rocks, hesitated, while below, Ian Melcker urged her on.

Her hesitation was understandable. The two snowboarders from Denver usually ride the resorts along the Interstate 70 corridor — a region that an El Niño weather pattern has kept brutally dry this year. As of late January, most central Colorado resorts had bases of just 30 to 40 inches, with hard snow and exposed rock and dirt.

“It’s pretty bad — Copper, Winter Park …” said Melcker, his voice trailing off, as if discussing some calamity.

Yahn plunged down the gap between the crags, crashing halfway down with a burst of white spray. She emerged from the tumble laughing.

“It’s way better,” she said of the powder that cushioned her fall. “Summit County has no snow this year.”

Welcome to the happiest place in the Rockies.

“We’re always happy when we get snow,” said Rosanne Haidorfer-Pitcher, vice president of marketing and sales for this southwest Colorado resort, last week. “Because we get a lot of it, we’re always pretty happy.”

It was not a happy first part of the season for much of Colorado’s ski industry. Vail Resorts, which operates Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone, saw a 2.7-percent drop in skier visits through mid-January, compared with last season. Statewide, skier visits were up 1 percent for the first part of the season.

At Wolf Creek, four hours’ drive from Colorado Springs, as of late January, skier visits were up 23 percent over last season.

From Colorado Springs, Denver and Boulder, from towns with their own ski hills like Breckenridge and Keystone, skiers are flocking to Wolf Creek this season. While the resort has long catered to locals in Pagosa Springs and the San Luis Valley, tourists from Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, and savvy powder hounds from across the country, its remote location has kept it off the map for most Front Range skiers.

With stunning scenery, affordable tickets, a laid-back vibe and short lift lines, it isn’t too different from other small, locally owned hills like Arapahoe Basin or Monarch Mountain.

Except for in the one category that matters most: snow. Tons of it.

On a horseshoe-shaped ridge on the eastern side of the San Juan Mountains, Wolf Creek usually benefits from copious snowfall, 465 inches a year, thanks to a mix of geography and meteorology. The San Juans are the first obstacle tropical storms from the Pacific Ocean hit, forcing the warm air up, where it cools and dumps. The shape of the Wolf Creek Pass area can grip the storms, so it may still be snowing on the mountain when the storm is causing interstate pile-ups in Oklahoma.

This year, the El Niño, a warming of Pacific waters that occurs about every five years, has shifted the jetstream to the south, which has sent the storms battering against the San Juans, leaving the northern mountains of Colorado drier than usual.

While Breckenridge had received 119 inches of snow by Jan. 29, Wolf Creek had 273. Its 114-inch base was better than any other resort in Colorado. Or New Mexico. Or Utah. Or Montana. Or Wyoming. Or Idaho.

The storms have been colossal, 5 feet over several days in mid-December, 5.5 more feet in one storm two weeks ago. They love El Niño down here, though they take a long view.

“There are years when southern Colorado doesn’t have any snow and northern Colorado does. I think, unfortunately, everybody’s got to take their turns,” said Haidorfer-Pitcher. As she spoke, the first flakes were falling in a storm that brought another 17 inches of powder.

The town of South Fork, a collection of hotels and vacation cabins on the east side of Wolf Creek Pass that seems especially sleepy in winter, is loving it, too. Most tourists stay in Pagosa Springs, on the west side of the pass, but that is changing this year.

“We have seen an influx from the Front Range,” said Josephine Pierce, who does marketing for the town of South Fork. “It’s a little bit longer drive, but a lot of times, if you hit I-70 with that traffic on there, it can take you a couple hours to get to Summit County.”

“It’s been awesome,” said David House, an employee at the Wolf Creek Ranch Ski Lodge, a few miles east of the hill.

“They’re talking about the snow. We’re getting calls from people from Copper Mountain, Vail. They’re calling and asking how the snow is,” he said.

On the hill, you can sense an excitement sorely lacking at most Colorado resorts this year.

Hoots and hollers echo from above, as skiers plunge down Alberta Peak, a moderate hike-to area, bouncing through heaps of powder, and then into sloped forests where solitude reigns and untouched stashes linger three days after the storm. In the Waterfall area, experts test their skills against tree-covered terrain so steep it feels like the snow hides a waterfall.

In the modest base area — two restaurant counters and one bar — skiers talk excitedly about the great spots they found and how far they hiked to get there.

“This place is awesome,” said Dan Gates, on vacation from Vermont, eating lunch. “Everybody’s very polite. You can get a burger and a beer for ten bucks.”

Wolf Creek officials embrace the local feel of the mountain, which has $52 adult lift tickets — $31 on local appreciation day, when everyone is a “local” — no hotel or lodging and an aprés-ski scene that ends when the bar shuts at 4:30 p.m. The resort is opposed to the proposed development of 750 condominium units by a development group led by Texas billionaire Red McCombs next to the hill.

“There’s a lot of industrial skiing out there, where they put as many condos as they can and they put a lot of lifts,” said Haidorfer-Pitcher. “We’re trying to make it different. We want people to come here and maybe not see anybody else on the trail.”

Satchel Friedman, who moved to Breckenridge before this winter to spend the season skiing, didn’t make the four-hour drive for the ambiance, or the terrain.

“Sure, it has some nice steeps, nothing too special. It’s the snow,” said Friedman, who has been frustrated with conditions at his home hill.

“If there’s snow, we’re going to keep coming.

“It’s not the price, it’s not the travel time,” he said.

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