On a windy, mid- October day on Grand Mesa, white plumes puffed into the air near Powderhorn Mountain Resort.
The race was on to get everything ready to open the ski area and the snow guns in the base area were getting a test drive. In the coming years, skiers and riders at Powderhorn are going to see more snow guns revving up as the resort plans to implement top-to-bottom snowmaking for the first time.
With this plan, Powderhorn joins several other independent mountains in western Colorado investing millions in an effort to continue to compete in an industry that is increasingly consolidating to two major corporations.
Snowmaking will be key to Powderhorn's future, Executive Director Ryan Shramm said. Last season was a good year for natural snowfall, with 214 inches at the resort, according to onthe- snow.com.
However, in the last five seasons there have been three during which total snowfall was less than 150 inches, more than 100 inches below average, according to onthesnow.com.
Local skier Kirk Clifford said having good snow is important for the skiing experience.
"Last year it was great because they had awesome snow," Clifford said. "Just like anywhere, snow makes the difference as far as the mountain goes."
For Powderhorn, Shramm said, top-to-bottom snowmaking would allow it to weather those weaker snow years and limit the effect on its business.
"Snowmaking on one run isn't going to prevent a year like we had a couple years ago," Shramm said. "I wasn't here, but I understand it was really tough. Everybody is impacted by those low snow years, but (snowmaking) does help to insulate the business a little bit. You won't have as much of a challenge if you have some snowmaking top to bottom in a year like that."
This initial phase of the project will connect Powderhorn to Anderson Reservoir No. 2 with a pipeline that can supply up to 140 acre-feet, or around 45.6 million gallons of water, to the snowmaking system. It will require a pump station, as well as high voltage electrical work. The first run that would get top-to-bottom coverage is Bill's Run, an intermediate trail from the Flat Top Flyer lift to the base area.
This project, which is still pending approval from the U.S. Forest Service, represents a $2.5 to $3 million investment, Shramm said. Going forward, the resort plans to add snowmaking to one to two trails each year, costing a couple hundred thousand dollars each.
"Operationally, it is going to be more expensive," Shramm said. "We need people to run the system. We need electricity to run the pumps and the snow guns, but at the same time it's certainly going to be one of the most efficient systems in North America."
That efficiency comes from the special geography of Grand Mesa. Unlike most mountains, the water Powderhorn is accessing is already on top of the mountain. Since it won't have to pump water uphill, the system can use smaller pumps and less electricity, Shramm said.
While natural snow will always be the main factor in keeping Powderhorn covered in white, Shramm said, snowmaking will smooth out the inconsistencies. The potential this type of system affords is evident at other mountains like Bogus Basin in Idaho. Like Powderhorn with Grand Junction skiers, Bogus Basin finds its niche in appealing to locals in nearby Boise who want a short trip to the mountain.
This is the first year Bogus Basin, which is at a lower elevation than Powderhorn, has had its new top-to-bottom snowmaking system in place. The system allowed it to open Nov. 8, its earliest opening ever, Bogus Basin Director of Community Relations Susan Saad said.
"(Snowmaking) is part of a year-round comprehensive master plan," Saad said. "We're shifting to bring in more business in the summer and ensure our opening date (with snowmaking)."
SUMMER SELLING POINT
Over the past five years, Powderhorn has also pursued a shift to increase business in the summer with its bike park. This summer, crews were at work building two new mountain bike trails and, Shramm said, the mountain is planning to continue expanding with more trails. Right now the summer represents a small part of Powderhorn's business, but Shramm said it will grow to represent a larger share.
"I'd love to see it at 20% to 25% (of the overall business)," Shramm said. "I think that's a pretty good goal. Again that's a little ethereal because you want to grow the overall business, too."
One factor that Shramm said he thinks will benefit the mountain during the summer is the addition of the Palisade Plunge trail, which is under construction. The trail will run from the top of Grand Mesa to downtown Palisade. Powderhorn is also constructing a trail to connect its bike park to the Plunge.
"It will be good because we'll be able to get people for a couple of days," Shramm said. "We'll be able to get people to come up and say, 'OK, you're going to ride the Palisade Plunge one day, you're going to go ride in Flowing PKark for a day, you're going to ride in our park for a day or two.' That's when things are going to change."
All this investment for a small area isn't unique to Powderhorn. Both Sunlight Mountain Resort in Glenwood Springs and Ski Cooper Mountain in Leadville are pursuing major terrain expansions, Colorado Ski Country USA Public Affairs Director Chris Linsmayer said. These investments from small and midsize mountains are showing the strength of the ski industry in Colorado right now, Linsmayer said.
"Certainly there are challenges facing every ski area in the state, but I think if you look at the last few years, it really has been an exciting and successful time across the state and across the industry, not just for the bigger ski areas, but also for the medium and smaller size areas," Linsmayer said. "You see that reflected in the investments areas like Powderhorn and Sunlight are making."
Sunlight Mountain Executive Director Tom Hays said the success of the last few seasons and the support of its local riders have led directly into its expansion, which will include 100 new skiable acres and a new lift. That plan will come to fruition over the next several seasons.
"We've had several really good years," Hays said. "You know, we cater to more of our local residents than destination-type skiers and we've gotten super good support from all the local guests that come. It's just time to do a larger expansion. We haven't done one since the early '90s."
Hays said the expansion, which is on the East Ridge, will provide more expert terrain for skiers looking for a challenge. It will initially have hike-out access with a lift being installed to serve the area in the coming years.
"We're just opening up some new advanced terrain," Hays said. "I think sometimes Sunlight has the reputation of being a small, beginner-type area and this terrain is definitely not beginner terrain."
Sunlight has also invested in expanding its snowmaking, but only in the base area, Hays said. Long term, he said the mountain does want to pursue top-to-bottom snowmaking.
Another investment this season at Powderhorn comes in the form of the Umbrella Bar. The new addition is covered by a large umbrella that is more than 12 feet in diameter and is enclosed by glass walls.
While investing in the resorts is important, both Hays and Shramm said keeping prices down and focusing on the skiing experience are key to drawing skiers who have the option to ride at larger resorts.
"It's great when all the locals show up and everyone knows each other," Hays said. "They can sit on the deck and enjoy themselves. They can take a run with their friends."
Keeping local skiers and riders coming back is important, but Shramm is also working to introduce new skiers to the sport and grow the number of people who participate by offering free introductory ski lessons.
"Anybody that has not skied or snowboarded before — brand new, first time, never- evers — can basically come up and experience skiing or snowboarding for the first time for free," Shramm said. "There is no cost to sign up. There is no cost for rental equipment. It's completely free."
The program consists of three lessons designed to introduce skiers to the basics, but also progress more than what a simple introductory class would allow for. Last season, they began offering it two days a week and will expand to seven days this season.
Being friendly to new skiers and families is a draw to some of its customers, including local skier Kip Madsen. This year he decided to purchase a season pass for his entire family for the first time.
"We have three boys playing basketball, playing baseball, school. You can run up there for a half day or a full day," Madsen said. "The terrain is more family-oriented. The kids can progress and get better as they ski, but it's got a little bit for everybody."
For Shramm, focusing on providing a good skiing experience for everyone is what will allow Powderhorn to compete and be successful in the future.
"Skiing is what we do," Shramm said. "I ski 100-and-some days a year. It's what we do, it's what we love, it's what we're passionate about. That's what is going to give us a competitive edge over the big corporations."