So, Telski has decided to postpone the ski area opening. I say, good for them. Don’t force it. Better to have an excellent product underfoot for the faithful and the visitor.
Crested Butte is going to open (did open Saturday, I believe) in spite of the warm weather and lack of natural snow. They’ll offer sliding on one lift, plus the magic carpets, and essentially one run. Good for them. I guess. What they’re offering is a sad minimum – a band-aid of white on an otherwise patchy mountainside – but they had enough snowmaking water and enough cold temperatures to get that far. And they must have decided to take the metaphysical/business leap: We’re open; skiing’s happening; the season has begun; therefore it must be winter.
Telluride, for whatever reasons (warm temps? saving water? saving money?), chose the opposite tack, and I applaud them. It couldn’t have been easy to admit that you can’t – despite all the promises and the plans (and advance reservations) – dictate to Mother Nature.
It used to be easier for the ski industry to accept the vagaries of the weather. I vividly recall the pit in my stomach as a young ski instructor in the Sierras as November dragged on and there was almost no snow on the ground. (There was no snowmaking.) Another instructor named Sharky and I split and stacked wood for the Bear Valley Lodge one Thanksgiving. It was pouring rain. We were soaked. It was frustrating. It wasn’t supposed to be raining in the mountains at the end of November. But there it was. The turkey tasted just as good.
Taos Ski Valley used to say, stubbornly, proudly – maybe they still do – that they would not open before their time. Like the wine. It was a strategy born straight out of the character of the area’s founder, Ernie Blake, a crusty and exacting old Swiss. And for decades it worked. Taos may not have opened until right before Christmas some years, but when they did crank up the lifts they actually had good skiing.
Thanksgiving is too soon to ski. Winter doesn’t start in most parts of the country until mid-December or later. This Thanksgiving thing is an abomination born of anticipation (the ski magazines arriving in the mailbox since August), of competition to be first (like the upcoming political primaries), and the insane drumbeat of holiday marketing. Add in a few lucky years, when the snow did come early, and Turkey Day has morphed into an industry norm.
Time was – before everybody had manmade snow, before real estate took over, before skiing got too big for its ecological britches – there was more time. Taos not only waited to open until the mountains were white, they shut down the lifts at lunchtime. Gray Rocks, in Quebec, did the same thing. Can you imagine? Everybody stopped for lunch together. Everybody skied what the heavens provided – transparent Laurentian ice or chalk-dust New Mexican powder. And loved every minute of it. A ski vacation was a time apart, a world apart.
Here’s a plan: Skiing should go back to its natural season (if such a thing can be defined in the age of global warming), Christmas to late April, or later depending on snow cover. Everything needs to shift forward a month, like daylight savings. Stay home for Thanksgiving. Gather the family. Give thanks.
It’s hard, I know. Especially if you are young and skiing means everything. When Ellen and I were teaching at Keystone and Bear Valley, snow equaled life. But then came our first winter in Telluride, 1976-77. And it didn’t snow. And didn’t snow some more. We wanted very much to ski this new mountain. We had to put on hold our ideas for a radically new approach to ski teaching. We could have been feeling desperate. But we weren’t.
Ellen was glowing, great with child. Our Cloe was born in early February. We sat out in front of the rental house passing this miracle back and forth between us in the February sun on a golden dry lawn.
It may be heresy in a ski town to say it. But there are more important things than November snow.