Don Jewkes
Special to the Sun
Snowmass Village, CO, Colorado

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April 9, 2013
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At the current pace, is skiing sustainable?

SNOWMASS VILLAGE - The single biggest thrill of skiing is the chance of catching first tracks and taking one face shot after another. Close second is the relaxing, end-of-the-day hot tub. Hot tubs are the single friendliest place to meet people on a ski trip and a cocktail.

Catching those first tracks is all the sweeter because you always have to earn them - by waking before dawn filled with excitement, eating a hearty mountain breakfast, standing in the cold waiting for the lifts to open and that extra hike to an enticing chute. Knowing nods are shared by skiers who wait for the first chair. Patrollers who arrive to give the all-clear are met with a mix of anticipation and suspicion: Will they open the lift now? Will they drop the rope on those double-black fun zones, or did they already poach the stash I dreamed about last night? But the rewards far outweigh any burden. We're never more grateful to be skiers than when we're finally in place, perched on the edge of a tantalizingly untracked expanse upon which we're about to carve the first tracks of the day.

Skiing is an addicting sport for many reasons - the outdoors, pristine settings, fresh air and camaraderie - but none more than the need for speed. You are challenged each and every turn by the hill and Mother Nature.

We love skiing, but let's face it: The sport as we know it is changing, not only the technical aspects but the environment we are surrounded by. Long gone are the days of $14 lift tickets, ski bums who work two night jobs to buy a $300 pass, brown-bag lunches on the decks, an hour ride to get to top and skiing from first chair till the cable stops running. Outer protection might have been only a garbage bag modified to fit over your head to stay dry. Ski all day - remember the slow lifts - hanging out in the local day bar, and then back on the road to home. Those days are gone.

Corporate America is the rule today, consuming the little guy and turning skiing into a country-club atmosphere - not bad if you can afford to belong to a country club. Ski towns are becoming more company towns owned by a few who control the towns' economies. Some call this progress - others believe this is an erosion of a way of life, the environment and the true reason we ski. All of this is catering to the few who can afford this country-club atmosphere and does eliminate many families and new skiers.

Today, ski companies are doing just about everything for you except making the turns. Today a ski bum has a private jet and a 10,000-square-foot house on a hill overlooking town, and he parks his sport utility vehicle in underground parking. Lift tickets are approaching the $120 mark, and a season pass can cost $1,500 or more. No more brown bags on mountain restaurant decks; guests are faced with $17 burgers, $5 fries and $7 milkshakes. Throw in a light beer for $7.50 and lunch can set you back more than $35. At these prices, you might as well enjoy lunch at a fancy sit-down restaurant and be waited on and eliminate the hassle of standing in a line and then having to look for a place to sit. All-day private lessons are approaching the $700 mark and still going up. Once, you needed all day to ski, with slow lifts and long lines, whereas today you can get more skiing in three hours with fast, high-capacity chairs and gondolas with no lift lines.

Climate change is affecting the ski industry. Portions of Colorado are in an extreme drought, and snowmaking requires more water. With water in demand, how will the industry react?

Ski vacations are discretionary spending and use disposable income. There are vacation spots that cost a lot less, and the guests are starting to see the light.

With resorts justifying the ongoing ticket battle to reach the new price pinnacle of $120 with more luxury improvements like heated seats in the gondolas and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in every bucket, how are they going to improve the climate?

If we are in a pattern of warmer, drier winters, what can be done to improve the product? Lack of snow means less water during the non-skiing months, so increased snowmaking is not a viable option if we do not have the water. Less snowpack means a shorter season and fewer weeks of good skiing.

The question is: Is the ski industry sustainable under the current circumstances of climate, escalating costs and fewer participants? See you next run. Don Jewkes is a 36-year certified PSIA-RM Level 3 teaching professional and local resident. Support your local independent retailers and restaurants.

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The Aspen Times Updated Apr 9, 2013 07:24PM Published Apr 9, 2013 07:23PM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.