Resorts won’t stay open just because you and your buds are still skiing

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The end of ski season is always a bummer.

But it stings even more when the season ends while there’s still tons of snow on your favorite ski area.

The west coast winter of 2016-17 delivered historic levels of snow throughout the Lake Tahoe area and the Sierra Nevada.

And much of that snow is still slathered several feet deep over the slopes of west coast ski resorts from Mammoth to Truckee and between.

So that means we’ll spend our mornings skiing and afternoons drinking beers on the deck of our favorite lodge well into the summer, right?

Well, not exactly.

Several Tahoe ski areas closed this past weekend and more plan to end their seasons Sunday.

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Early 2016-17 season snowfall at Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe. Billy Jesberg/Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe

 

The final day of the season at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe is May 29. If you’re looking for lift-assisted skiing in July Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain are scheduled to remain open.

So why are resorts closing even though there’s still a ton of snow?

We called Tim Cohee for an explanation.

Cohee is the director of the Ski Business and Resort Management Program at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village.

He’s also the owner of the China Peak ski area and a former longtime executive at Kirkwood and Heavenly resorts.

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Squaw Valley USA provided this raw video footage of ski conditions following snow over six days. The mid-season dump was part of a record 2016-17 season that will lead to skiing as late as July 4 or even later. Squaw Valley USA

 

First, Cohee gave us the short answer.

“A very simple answer,” he said. “Lack of business.”

The long answer, however, is more interesting to those of us who want to wring every last ski day possible out of the hundreds of dollars we plunked down for a season pass.

The sad truth, according to Cohee, is that our season passes just aren’t enough to justify the enormous cost of operating chairlifts, groomers, a ski patrol, parking control and myriad other resort features.

“Pass holders have already paid so there is no more revenue from the pass holder,” Cohee said.

And day visitor traffic, he said, drops off dramatically once the weather gets warm for a couple reasons.

First, warmer weather means more options for outdoor activity such as hiking and mountain biking.

Second, a ski resort day visit is expensive so day visitors tend to want to ski or snowboard all day. And that’s not easy to accomplish in late spring.

“(Snow) becomes so hot and sticky it is only good for a few hours,” he said. “Things just rot so fast in the spring.”

Passholders tend to live closer to resorts and, since they’ve already paid, don’t mind hitting the snow for a couple hours while it’s good then leaving. That’s not as appealing to day visitors.

Diminishing revenue isn’t the only reason resorts close with snow on the ground, Cohee said.

There are also costs associated with staying open, particularly at the end of a big snow season.

For example, sometimes it can take more time and labor to keep the lifts open once the snowpack starts melting fast.

That’s because there can be dramatic day-to-day shifts in the snow depth. That means workers need to spend more time and labor at the entrances to the lifts.

“To get the lifts reopened takes an incredible amount of time … shoveling and bringing snow into mazes,” he said.

The good news for would-be spring skiers is Squaw Valley and Mammoth remain open for business.

Cohee said they can remain viable into the summer for a couple of reasons.

 

First, they’ve got upper mountain areas that can sustain skiable snow.

Second, once the vast majority of competitors are closed those two resorts, located hundreds of miles from each other, can consolidate the late season clientele on their mountains.

Late season conditions also mean softer snow which Cohee said means skiers are emboldened to try more challenging lines they would avoid in midwinter.

That’s a big deal at Squaw, he said.

“Very advanced terrain becomes very negotiable for very average skiers in the spring,” Cohee said. “They are a great spring resort because of their terrain.”

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