The Rebirth of a Ski Hill

Until this season, snowmaking at Snow King only provided coverage midway up the mountain. New investments in snowmaking infrastructure now allow for coverage to the top of the Town Hill, enabling racers—both local and, hopefully in the future, from afar—to begin training in November. Photo by Bradly J. Boner

The Rerbirth of a Ski Hill

The first step—and the only one supported by most everyone—in the attempted revival of Snow King Mountain debuted this fall. Will it be enough, or are more changes to come?

BY BEN GRAHAM

A LEGION OF spandex-clad teenagers jokes nervously about halfway up Snow King Mountain, perched hundreds of feet above the town of Jackson. It’s November, a time of year when the young ski racers are typically somewhere in Colorado to begin their early season training. A coach waves the group silent.

The first skier shuffles up to the starting line, ski tips pointed directly down the steep slope. In a puff of crystalline flakes, the skier disappears downhill. Farther south on the mountain, in an area that would still be showing grass this time of year, a dozen locals are spending their lunch breaks carving long, graceful turns through man-made snow. They descend to the base, hop in their cars, and make it back to work before their breaks end.

That vision—of ski racers and locals shredding “the King” in the late fall—has driven the Jackson Hole Ski & Snowboard Club, Snow King Ski Area owners, and the Town of Jackson on a year-and-a-half-long quest to bring new snowmaking infrastructure to Jackson’s beloved community ski hill. The ski area’s opening day historically has been reliant on the weather. In recent years, that has left skiers waiting until as late as the end of December to begin using the hill.

The $3.5 million snowmaking project is supposed to change that and inject new life into the mountain, for locals who take a ski lap during their lunch breaks or after work, and for the ski racers who train on the hill. It could also help right the ship for Snow King Ski Area and Mountain Resort, which, like many small ski areas across the country, has been hemorrhaging money for years.
The prospects of a state grant potentially paying for the project initially got it off the ground. Ski area operators applied to the Wyoming Business Council for the grant. It ultimately was turned into a $1 million loan/$500,000 grant package, with the Town of Jackson acting as the guarantor. That left some on the Town Council wary, as the same people in charge of the ski area previously ran the now town-owned ice rink at its base but let it fall into disrepair. But the town agreed to move ahead with the snowmaking project nonetheless.

The Rebirth of a Ski Hill

The aspect of Snow King Mountain makes it ideal for snowmaking. North-facing, the slope gets little sun in the winter months.

For the Jackson Hole Ski & Snowboard Club, which has been integral to the efforts, it has been mostly about the young ski racers. Previously each fall, members had to travel to Colorado for early season training. If they didn’t, they’d lose out on valuable weeks of practice. “That’s a big handicap for our kids; they lose six weeks of training compared to Vail, Aspen, and Sun Valley,” ski club board president Rick Hunt says. Hunt grew up in town and learned to ski at Snow King. His grandmother was one of the first donors to the ski club around the time it was founded nearly seventy-five years ago. Hunt has seen the mountain in its heyday, and through its decline.

At its peak, Snow King served as the focal point of winter sports in Jackson Hole, establishing the valley as a ski destination long before Jackson Hole Mountain Resort was built. It was the first ski area in the state when it opened in 1938. Using a cable bought from an oil drilling company in Casper, a rope tow was built in 1939 and operated by Neil Rafferty, who would go on to be the ski area’s manager.

In 1946, Rafferty, with backing from the Jackson Hole Winter Sports Association, built Snow King’s first chairlift. In the following decades, the ski club grew, a hotel was opened at the base, and national teams would come to train on the mountain’s steep ski runs in advance of the start of the World Cup season. But, because of improvements in snowmaking at other resorts and less-consistent natural early season snow here, the latter hasn’t happened in about a decade. (As recently as 2010, though, members of the U.S. and French technical ski teams trained on the King but that was in midwinter—they were prepping for the Vancouver Games. It does show that national teams are still interested in training on the mountain.) For regular skiers, aging lifts and increasing competition have caused Snow King to lose much of its sheen. Season pass sales have been decreasing.

Better snowmaking capabilities could spark a renaissance, those behind the project claim. “It’s an untapped jewel; I’d hate to see it go by the wayside,” Hunt says. The project has paid for subterranean water pipes and power lines, and new pumping stations. The ski club embarked on a $1.5 million fundraising campaign for snow guns and a water chiller. The goal is for the ski area to be able to produce the eighteen inches of artificial snow required for a base layer by the beginning of November. The ski club studied historical weather patterns and believes that will be possible if the guns can begin spewing artificial flakes each October.

The Rebirth of a Ski Hill

“The beauty here is our climate is actually fantastic for this,” board member Bill Mulligan says. He compared thirty years of weather data in Jackson to Summit County, Colorado, which is home to Breckenridge and Keystone, among other ski areas that start making snow early. The difference was only two or three degrees. “We’re quite confident we have the weather, we just needed the snowmaking system,” Mulligan says.

The snow guns need a “wet bulb” temperature of 29 degrees in order to make snow. The calculation takes humidity into account. That “wet bulb” temperature still can be achieved when the thermometer reads above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on conditions. If the ski club’s projections are right, the end result could be a competitive edge for Jackson’s ski racers, or at least a competitive equalization.

“Every year we go to Colorado, and we usually train at different places there,” Mulligan’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Anya, explains. “I wouldn’t say it’s rocky, but the snow is warmer,” she says of training there. “They usually tell us to bring last year’s skis, in case we hit rocks.” Anya dabbles in a little of everything when it comes to ski racing—slalom, giant slalom, and super-G. She is hopeful the artificial snow will give her and her teammates equal footing with their Mountain West counterparts. “We’re going to get a lot more training than usual. I’m excited because it’s good for competition. A lot of competitors start training a long time before us,” Anya says.

The project also could prove to be an economic boon for the valley if other ski racing teams come to do their early season training here. “The thing that everybody in our community should love is that it brings in visitors to our economy during the shoulder season,” says Kim Kernan, an attorney and Mulligan’s wife. “That’s tax dollars for the county and for the city. It’s a terrific triple win for the ski club and everyone else involved.”

Parents spent a combined $60,000 to send their kids to Colorado last year, she says. That money could soon be staying in the valley. If and when other communities begin sending their racing teams to Snow King for early season training, the overall economic injection into the valley’s economy is estimated to be about $472,000, according to the ski club. Revenue would come from day passes, hotel rooms, and other daily expenses that the visitors would incur in town. The projection of nearly a half-million dollars is assuming a total of about four hundred athletes and coaches come to Jackson during November and early December.

Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen. Kernan helped the ski club hash out a deal with the ski area in which the nonprofit will take on all the risk of the ski area’s operations for November and early December. The ski club will sell tickets, rent out race lanes, and be on the hook for any losses. One lane will be reserved for the public during that time. Any profits will be split between the ski area and the ski club. The deal that Kernan helped negotiate marks a significant change for two of the oldest ski-related organizations in the valley. “Historically, Snow King and the ski club have operated with just a handshake agreement,” she says.

The Rebirth of a Ski Hill

Construction crews spent five months last summer and fall working to install the necessary infrastructure and new snowmaking equipment. Photo by Sofia Jaramillo

UNLIKE THE SKIING they hope to assist, the process of getting the project started has been an uphill battle for all those involved. Some have been hesitant to partner with the ski area, which has been losing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually just keeping the lifts open. The ski area’s operators view their commitment to Snow King, via the annual losses they take to keep it open, as a public service in itself, according to Snow King Ski Area and Mountain Resort general manager Ryan Stanley.

All those involved have been able to find a common point in the snowmaking project, which has been described as the “backbone” of the mountain’s future. That has been the favored term of Manuel Lopez, former managing partner of the ski area. He has been involved with the mountain for decades but has recently taken a step back amidst his cancer treatment. Lopez has ceded the day-to-day operation to Stanley, while ski hill partner and financier Max C. Chapman Jr. is taking over as managing partner. “The reality is that this is the biggest investment in the mountain probably ever,” Stanley explained on a ride up the Summit Lift one balmy afternoon last summer. “People need to understand that.”

Beneath the chairlift and Stanley’s dangling feet, a massive construction project is underway. An excavator is digging a five-foot trench directly up the face of the mountain. A thick cable connects the machine to a backhoe at the summit; this is supposed to keep the excavator from careening down the steep slope. Rocks and small boulders have been rolling downhill all summer because of the project. The work has resulted in trail closures, much to the chagrin of the locals who view their hikes up Snow King as a right, and as vital to their daily routines as morning coffee.

Water pipes and power lines will be laid in the ditch and extend to the top of the mountain, Stanley explains from the chairlift with an all-encompassing wave of his hand. The new utilities will power the snowmaking guns, but they also unlock new potential for Snow King. Electrical lines and a pipe carrying drinking water to the top would allow a restaurant to be built at the summit, a possibility Snow King investors have talked about for years. A gondola also has been added to the grand vision for the Town Hill, one that would scoop tourists and skiers up at the bottom and deposit them at the summit. From the summit, Stanley points north to a shorter peak, which could be the location of a yurt camp, if things go as planned. The problem is coming up with the $30 million or so needed to get the improvements built. “We’re setting the stage for someone to come in with some money,” Stanley says.

That could be the tricky part. The partners who own the ski area also ran the hotel at the mountain’s base for years, until it was sold in 2012 to an investment company. The partners lacked the financing to renovate the 204-room hotel, which originally opened in 1976. The hotel had helped offset the losses from the ski area for years. While the partners still have some development rights left for property at the base, the future—in terms of stable revenue—hinges on the success of new year-round attractions.

The Rebirth of a Ski Hill

Pictured here is the Town Downhill, held annually at the King in March. The course goes from the top of the mountain to the bottom. Until this year, such races could only be held in the late winter. With the new investment in snowmaking, a top-to-bottom course can now happen in late November. Photo by Bradly J. Boner

THE SNOWMAKING PROJECT is just about the only change in the works for the mountain that has gained community-wide support. Ski area owners want to add more skiable terrain and replace aging lifts, but they also have plans for a mishmash of new summer attractions aimed at bringing in visitors and increasing revenue during Jackson Hole’s busy warmer months, when travelers from across the country flock to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Snow King would like more of the millions of these visitors to stop by the Town Hill. The mountain currently has an alpine slide for summer visitors. It first opened in 1979 and today is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. “Right now, the alpine slide is how we can keep the lifts open in the winter,” Stanley says. Snow King has about 40,000 skier days each winter. (For comparison, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort had more than 500,000 skier days last winter.) Approximately 70,000 people ride the alpine slide each summer.

While the alpine slide was state-of-the-art entertainment when it opened almost four decades ago, today mountain resorts have zip lines, ropes courses, and alpine coasters (a roller coaster that operates without a motor using only gravity). Snow King would also like to have all of these. The changes were laid out in a master plan submitted to the Bridger-Teton National Forest, but each individual proposal still has to be approved before work can begin. (In November, the Town Council approved the alpine coaster.) Like many ski areas, Snow King operates based on a lease with the forest service. The Town of Jackson also owns part of the land on the ski hill.

While the projects in the plan may be nothing more than a wish list at this point, based on the funding that is available, that hasn’t stopped some in the community from raising alarms that the “soul” of Snow King could be at stake. People have used words like “carnival,” “amusement park,” and “Disneyland” to describe some of what the resort operators have proposed outside of the snowmaking project.

A group of residents who live on the hillside just below a proposed ropes course have drawn one of the first battle lines in what could be a more extended fight over the construction of future attractions. Shane Rothman owns a home at the top of Snow King Drive. A proposed “aerial adventure course” would be visible in the treetops above his backyard.

“It’s hurting this community’s character,” Rothman said at a Town Council meeting in July. “It doesn’t fit into the core values of what Snow King has stood for for over seventy-five years.” Town of Jackson Councilman Jim Stanford, who also lives near the base of the King, held a similar view at the same meeting. “A lot of this stuff that’s being proposed for Snow King taken collectively are gimmicks,” Stanford says. “I ask what’s wrong with experiencing nature on nature’s terms? The answer is you can’t make a buck.” The same has been said for the network of zip lines proposed for the ski hill and the alpine coaster. Snow King says the additions are vital to the future operations of the mountain. “I think because we’re a small ski area and the costs of operating in the winter months at the industry standard are quite expensive, the path forward is really to support winter operations through summer operations revenue,” Stanley says. “We’re looking at the snowmaking as the first step of many in turning Snow King around and making it sustainable, which I think is what everyone here wants. People love this mountain.”

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