Ski season arrived in the U.S. on Saturday.
It arrived not with one run of man-made snow, as is the norm for October in Colorado, but with a potent storm that brought 30 inches to the San Juan Mountains earlier this week. So, for the second time in a decade, Wolf Creek Ski Area won the race to be the first ski area in the country to spin the lifts, a race usually won by the snow guns at Loveland or Arapahoe Basin resorts.
More than 1,000 snow-starved skiers and snowboarders from across Colorado converged on the rural, rustic resort to celebrate the season’s first turns.
“I can’t believe southern Colorado is getting it first for once,” said Nick Dillsworth, who drove with his friends from Telluride Friday to get good spots in line. They made second chair.
“We tried to sleep in the lift line but they asked us not to get run over by a snowcat,” he said. “It’s like 30 inches of cream cheese up there, like a good, dense base-building snow. It came in heavy and really started the season off right.”
A week before, the mountains around Wolf Creek were bare. As of Saturday, the rocks, grass and shrubs were covered with a 30-inch base. It being early season, there were still plenty of rocks, boulders and logs for skiers to dodge.
According to the National Weather Service, the snow that zeroed in on Wolf Creek was caused by “an early season long-wave trough that dug into the Great Basin for several days. This provided several days of moist, upslope flow into the mountains. The trough was just the right amplitude to provide adequate cold air aloft and still tap moisture from the south.”
Such storms are no surprise to local skiers at Wolf Creek, which gets an average of 450 inches a year and claims “the most snow in Colorado.”
And after a hot, dry summer that saw several major forest fires in southern Colorado, the snow-draped mountains were a welcome change for the many locals who came out Saturday.
“It’s a beautiful thing. It’s greatly needed. We need to make up for lost time,” said Pagosa Springs skier Elizabeth Kunz.
“It’s crazy. It’s like a dream come true. It bodes well for the rest of the winter, today does, for sure,” said Colorado Springs skier Jeff Davis, who made a spur-of-the-moment decision Friday to make the four-hour drive to Wolf Creek.
For the family-owned resort, the decision to open was a no-brainer, according to Rosanne Haidorfer-Pitcher, vice president of marketing and sales.
“Because we got snow,” she said matter-of-factly. “That’s usually our motivation, getting snow and we’re ready to go. … Once the snow is good we’re pretty adamant about getting open as soon as we can.”
Lift tickets were $50 and the resort had 60 percent of the mountain open — a feat that many ski areas don’t accomplish until mid-season — including many expert, hike-to runs like Alberta Peak, which still looked menacing enough with boulders and cliffs that only the hardiest skiers ventured there.
They don’t rope off obstacles here, but just open entire swaths of the mountain, with only your common sense to guide you. And being the first to open — it happened once before, in 2011 — gave them a sense of pride, even if they’re only open on Saturdays and Sundays for now.
“We’re usually the first to open on all-natural snow. A-Basin and Loveland, they get their snow blowers out and they’re usually the first ones, but when Mother Nature heads this way, it’s a good thing,” said Haidorfer-Pitcher.
Those two resorts, which received some snow this week and continue to make snow, have yet to announce opening dates.
Arapahoe Basin CEO Alan Henceroth wrote on their website Friday that opening “is still a little too early to call.”
“For now, go enjoy a weekend of skiing at Wolf Creek (kudos to those guys),” he wrote.
If Saturday’s crowd was any indication, plenty of people from other ski towns heeded that advice.
Jessie Unruh of Breckenridge made a last-minute decision to hop into her friends’ car and sleep in the Wolf Creek parking lot. It was worth the effort.
“I think this might be the earliest I’ve ever ridden and it was so fun and it’s a beautiful day,” she said. “It’s cool to live in Colorado and have an opportunity like this. My friends in Kansas are like, ‘What the heck are you doing?'”
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