This winter brought a rollercoaster of a ski season for Arizona Snowbowl, from an opening day that was the earliest in more than 30 years, to the January storm that brought nearly four feet of snow to the mountain, to a February and March that ended up as some of the warmest and driest on record.
With two weekends left in the season, the ski mountain expects to log almost 200,000 skier visits — the second highest number on record behind the 2009-2010 season. November, December and January also all set records for skier visits, with between 14,000 and 69,000 people a month carving turns.
Now, as the resort looks ahead to next year, it’s planning construction on the second new lift in two years. The Grand Canyon Express will be the mountain’s first high-speed 6-Pack chairlift and will rise 1,500 vertical feet from the base across the street from Hart Prairie Lodge to the end of the Upper Ridge run near the Agassiz Lift’s midway dropoff point.
The ride will take about six minutes and the lift is slated to be finished by opening day next season, said J.R. Murray, resort general manager said.
It was Snowbowl’s ample use of snowmaking that allowed the mountain’s early opening as well as its planned April 17 closing date, Murray said.
The resort used 54 million gallons of reclaimed wastewater to make snow on 65 days this winter, about 30 percent of its 180 million gallon allocation from the city of Flagstaff.
If the mountain were relying only on natural snow, it likely would have had to close before March, Murray said. Since early February, the mountain has received just 6 inches of snow and in total received 206 inches of the white stuff, which is more than 50 inches less than normal.
Even so, this year’s 140-day ski season is the longest it’s been in 30 years and is the new model for the resort, Murray said. Despite three years of drought and warm temperatures, visitation has increased from 143,000 in 2013-2014 to “just a whisker under” 200,000 this winter, he said.
The goal with both the Grand Canyon Express and Humphreys Lift, which had its debut this season, was to reduce lift lines, especially at Agassiz Lift, Murray said.
“The bottom line is people will be able to make more ski runs per day,” he said.
This also was the first year that Snowbowl partnered with the Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority, or NAIPTA, on a new Mountain Express service from downtown to the base of Snowbowl Road, and then up the mountain.
The bus ran on 17 days during the season — all weekends and holidays — and counted an estimated 2,900 total boardings, with peak days seeing 500 boardings, according to Jacki Lenners, NAIPTA spokesperson.
Those numbers are a “reasonable start” for the pilot program, NAIPTA CEO and General Manager Jeff Meilbeck said, adding that he would like to see that number grow.
“I heard a lot of positive feedback from people saying they sure are glad we’re trying something and they hope it works,” Meilbeck said.
Snowbowl funded the entire service last year and Meilbeck said the two entities are now discussing whether and how to provide the bus service again next year.
For Snowbowl’s part, Murray was more sure in saying it plans to offer the Mountain Express service again and is looking at ways to make the schedule more consistent and more robust.
EL NINO HYPE
Local ski and snowboard shops said El Nino hype, solid early-season coverage and a monster snow at the beginning of January helped drive near-record business to start the ski season.
It was one of the busiest seasons ever at Peace Surplus, said Brad Shorb, director of operations.
Visitation is increasing over the long term, despite variable snowfall, he said.
“People are just starting to know Snowbowl as a resort that has a more consistent season. It’s a little easier for people to plan on coming up here,” Shorb said.
Anticipation of a wet el Nino winter also got people motivated and excited about the season, said Tommy Sims, manager at Ski Haus Flagstaff.
Both Peace Surplus and Ski Haus said the season fell off about mid-March, though. Spring breakers seemed to be more interested in soaking up the sun than donning ski gear and hitting the slopes, Sims said.
Looking toward this weekend at Snowbowl, snowmaking stopped March 23 and Agassiz is the only lift still open, but skiers may get some powder if precipitation in the forecast for Thursday, Friday and Sunday plays out.
“Sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised with April storms,” Murray said.