Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Ski season ends in fitting fashion

Seasonal snow totals, skier numbers biggest in years

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley's 70th ski season concluded with a bang Sunday as an afternoon electrical storm prematurely closed Bald Mountain's lifts.

But the thunder and lighting seemed a fitting end to a season dominated by wild weather.

Since October, heavy snows pounded Baldy with a frequency that seemed more akin to northern Utah than Sun Valley.

An impressive 360 inches of snow fell on Baldy this season, and the summit was still buried under more than 100 inches on Sunday.

"We've all been through a lot of drought and wet cycles but I can't remember 107 inches at the top of the mountain in late April," said Knox Cannon, a Wood River Valley resident who has been skiing Sun Valley since 1951, when he was 4 years old. "This has been one of the best years I've ever seen.

"Now that the mountain is closing, the only fun we have is to watch the Big Wood River flood."

Skier numbers were also bountiful with a total of 420,517 skiers counted this season—the seventh best in the resort's history. This year's total topped last years by 33,609 skiers, and was the best since the 1996-1997 season—another heavy snow year—when skier numbers topped out at 436,292.

The busiest day of the 2005-2006 season was Dec. 29, with 8,245 skiers.

The busiest day in the resort's history was Dec. 30, 1981, with 9,475 skiers.

Sun Valley's largest seasonal skier count was 475,522 in the 1981-1982 season, which was also one of the snowiest winters on record.

Jack Sibbach, the resort's marketing director and spokesman, said he hopes this season's phenomenal conditions corralled future visitors.

"Usually if you have a comparable snow year the next year, it carries over," Sibbach said. "We hope it continues."

If nothing else, locals were well aware of how blessed they were this season.

"Unbelievable," said Heather Uptmor, of Ketchum. "I've been here 10 years and this was probably the best."

Jock McGregor, a rancher from Cascade who spends his winters in Ketchum, said he used his powder skis "more this year than ever in the past."

McGregor added that he didn't have to travel to Utah to find powder this year.

"The one time I went to Utah it snowed a foot here," he laughed.

Jan Hegewald, of Ketchum, said the deep snowpack made some terrain—especially in the trees and steep backcountry areas outside the resort's boundary—skiable for the first time in years.

"There was a lot more stuff to jump off of," said Hegewald, whose parents met in the Pioneer Saloon in Ketchum years ago. "It was a really good year."

Exactly how good was it?

Sibbach said Sun Valley changed the way it keeps snow records over the years—totals now begin with the first measurable snow of the season, instead of the opening day—so it's difficult to determine exactly how this winter stacked up with the rest.

"But talking to Richie Bingham, who's been on the ski patrol for 39 years, he said it was one of the best he ever remembers," Sibbach said. "So that means it's one of the best in the last 40 years."

Last week, rumors started flying that Sun Valley may extend its ski season an additional week. The mountain was originally scheduled to close April 16. Then the decision was made to keep it open through April 23. Sibbach said deciding to extend the season yet another week would not have been feasible.

"It all comes down in the end to a business decision," Sibbach said. He added that the ticket sales, weather and the departure of the resort's employees all factored into the decision to close on April 23, rather than April 30.

He said the resort did not sell many tickets between April 14 and April 23, but staying open "was the right thing to do."

McGregor said "tell Earl thanks," referring to Sun Valley Co. owner Earl Holding.

The season concluded in typical fashion with two large parties at the base of Warm Springs Saturday and Sunday.

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