Ski area enjoys busy days

Powder brings out huge crowds for holiday skiing

— New Year's Day in Steamboat Springs wrapped a ski area operator's fondest dream and biggest challenge into one frenetic morning.

The convergence of the Christmas week crowds with a major powder dump had the crew at the Steamboat Ski Area scrambling to open on time while the line at the gondola snaked into Gondola Square.

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. officials won't give out the specifics on just how many skiers were slicing and dicing the New Year's powder -- they say as a publicly traded company, federal regulations prohibit giving out optimistic information that might influence stock prices. Still, there was no hiding the fact that the ski area was as busy as it has ever been on Jan. 1.

"New Year's Day threw everybody off," Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President Chris Diamond said. "Gondola Square was busy at 7:30 a.m. (the gondola usually opens at 8:30 a.m.). We had everyone inside the maze by 9:45 a.m."

Diamond said a significant percentage of the early crowd in the gondola line could be attributed to locals who have their priorities in place.

"People here are so passionate about their powder," Diamond said. "They'll give up New Year's Eve or go on two hours' sleep."

Steamboat had been pushing up its opening times by 15 minutes on key days during the holiday crush, just to give skiers a shot at getting a jump on the rush at the gondola.

Diamond said ski area managers studied the weather forecast for New Year's Day and decided they could not make that 15-minute push with a snowstorm bearing down on Mount Werner.

"We knew it was coming," Diamond said. "On snowy days it takes a lot of time to get this beast open."

Lift crews must shovel out their loading and unloading areas, as well as sweep the powder off every chair cushion. Ski Patrol must reset safety fences all over the mountain.

"You don't just push a button on the chairlift. We opened on time, but it was a stretch," Diamond said.

If holiday crowds are keeping ski area employees busy they're also renting skis as fast as ski techs can adjust DIN numbers on toe pieces.

Chuck O'Connell, area manager for Christy Sports' six ski shops in Steamboat, said Dec. 27-29 rental skis were going back into circulation almost as fast as they were returned to the shop. Christy's gondola SportStalker location has about 2,500 pairs of rental skis in its fleet.

"I was rounding up miscellaneous onesies and twosies, wherever I could find them at the other shops," O'Connell said.

The peak demand for his stores, O'Connell said, takes place between noon and 3 p.m., when people arriving to begin a ski vacation the following day show up to rent skis, before people on their last day of vacation have returned their gear. Ski shops must pay particular attention to make certain they have a range of sizes to satisfy customers who have made advance reservations.

"On Saturday and Sunday we were down to nothing in short (ski) sizes -- 140, 150 and 160 (centimeters)," O'Connell said.

After a soft early December in the Christy Sports rental shops, O'Connell said all of his stores have rebounded to surpass last year.

"We made it all back up in the last seven to 10 days," he said.

Steamboat on-mountain cafeterias were particularly crowded over the holiday, and that can be attributed as much to the falling snow as to the number of skiers on the mountain, Diamond said.

Ski area managers count on a certain percentage of their guests dining on the sun decks.

Everyone dines inside on stormy days, and skiers tend to linger longer over their hot soup during a storm.

The holiday throngs caused managers to jump in with line employees at the ski area's on-mountain restaurants.

Diamond skied Thursday morning and detected that the crowds are beginning to thin out.

"I think everyone was bushed," Diamond said. "The first college ski group arrives (soon)."


--To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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