Handful of U.S. resorts still skier-only
A handful of winter playgrounds maintain that snow is for skiing – period.
While the ski industry has welcomed the evolution of snowboarding and the business boom it has brought over the last two decades, four U.S. resorts are sticking to a policy of “skiers only.”
None of the resorts are in Tahoe, which has embraced snowboarding since the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The dynamic of the ski industry changed with the evolution of snowboarding, something that John Rice, general manager at Sierra-at-Tahoe, experienced first hand in the early 1980s.
Snowboarding at Tahoe started in the back hills of Tahoe City, where the boards were crude pieces of wood with clunky bindings and even rougher makeshift halfpipes.
Through the mid-1980s though, Rice saw the sport evolve from homegrown halfpipes to a couple of ski areas – Donner Ski Ranch and Soda Springs – allowing snowboarders on their mountainsides. As an operations manager at Squaw Valley, however, snowboarding was still considered fringe and snowboarders were off limits. But it wasn’t until he went down to Bear Valley to work that he saw the sport as revolutionary.
“The technology began to change. It had a surfskate influence and a younger street influence to it,” he said.
In 1989, Sierra-at-Tahoe (then Sierra Ski Ranch) allowed snowboarding and built its first terrain park. Now it has seven of them, and the skier to snowboarder ratio is 50-50, Rice said.
At Heavenly Mountain Resort (then Heavenly Valley), snowboarding has been a part of the culture since 1989 and over the years has grown in numbers emulating the nationwide trend of snowboarding. The resort boasts more skiers than snowboarders, but each year the gap is narrowing, said spokesman Russ Pecoraro.
“Skiers still make up the primary demographic at Heavenly,” Pecoraro said. “We will always welcome skiers and snowboarders alike. It is a mountain for everybody, and we want everyone to come out and have a great time.”
Snowboarding has become so popular at Heavenly that this year it will unveil the High Roller Nightlife snowboard park three nights a week. The park, which is open Thursdays through Saturdays, features a number of jib, rails and jumps for boarders. There’s even a DJ to spin tunes while boarders show off their maneuvers.
“We see that snowboarders are really influencing ski and resort culture overall, and we want to be a part of that,” Pecoraro said.
Still, other resorts say no thanks to the snowboard culture.
“When it comes right down to it, it’s our guests who have the largest say in the determination,” said Chuck English, director of mountain operations at Utah’s Deer Valley.
Deer Valley is one of the four remaining U.S. resorts where trails sculpted from the mountains are reserved for skiers. Alta, southeast of Salt Lake City, New Mexico’s Taos and Mad River Glen in Vermont are the others willing to turn away potential business because enough skiers seem to like it that way.
“The current situation finds us receiving so many positive letters and comments from guests because we don’t allow snowboarding,” English said. “That’s really why we continue with our policy the way it is.”
The policy: If you want to snowboard, go somewhere else. It’s exclusive and not at all apologetic. And as long as there is a market of skiers who support it, change is unlikely.
“There were a lot more,” Mad River Glen spokesman Eric Friedman said. “Now you’re left with the four holdouts.”
Theories abound about which resort will go next – if any does.
“I still put my money on it being a Utah resort that’s the last one,” said Dennis Nazari, founder of Salty Peaks snowboard shop on the eastern edge of Salt Lake City.
Nazari used to personally campaign from resort to resort in the 1980s and early 1990s for Utah ski areas to accept snowboarders. Now, it isn’t much of an issue. Snowboarders don’t have far to go from any of the skiers-only resorts, so the remaining four seem to have a niche in the industry.
“It makes me wonder. Maybe there is a place for a skier-only resort,” Nazari said. “But if there was a snowboard-only resort, how would that pan out with skiers?”
Snowboarding accounted for 28.7 percent of national lift ticket sales last season, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colo.
Each resort has its own reasons for being exclusively for skiers. Deer Valley always has been skiers-only since opening above downtown Park City in 1981. And with Park City Mountain Resort and The Canyons welcoming snowboarders just down the road, Deer Valley plans to keep its posh slopes to skiers, who are willing to pay the hefty lift ticket costs in exchange for things such as ski porters and tissue dispensers at the lift.
Taos, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico, is celebrating its 50th anniversary – and is sticking to its “pure skiing” mantra.
“We see it as something that differentiates us from other ski areas,” general manager Gordon Briner said.
At Alta, the decision to keep snowboards off the lifts in the early 1980s went largely unnoticed because the sport was still relatively new and there were very few people trying it, marketing director Connie Marshall said.
It has since developed into sort of a trademark for the resort, which has been around since 1938.
“We’ve been rewarded by our longtime skiers,” Marshall said. “We feel like it does give us an identity in the market.”
Mad River Glen’s policy came more from spite. Snowboarders were allowed on the mountain, but couldn’t use the classic single-chair lift, the only one that goes to the top of the mountain in central Vermont.
Friedman said the policy was broadened to keeping snowboarders out of the area altogether after former owner Betsy Pratt was confronted in a grocery store by a group of teens who wanted snowboarders to be able to ride the single-chair lift.
Friedman said the teens were hostile and called Pratt a name they shouldn’t have.
“That was the end of snowboarding at Mad River Glen,” Friedman said.
The policy stuck when the resort went co-op in 1995 and shareholders haven’t come close to overturning it – even in Vermont, home of industry giant Burton Snowboards.
The rift between skiers and snowboarders has subsided as snowboarding has grown in popularity and gained more acceptance. But the stereotype that snowboarders tend to be younger and more reckless still lingers – even though teenagers who took up the sport in the 1990s are now well into their 30s.
There are still, and probably always will be, skiers who prefer to have the mountain to themselves.
Sierra-at-Tahoe’s Rice doesn’t begrudge those resorts that remain ski-only.
“They have a core marketing niche, the Alpine skier,” Rice said. “They have positioned themselves this way. While snowboarders are unhappy about it, from a business perspective it makes sense.”
Kelly Dudek, a 32-year-old hair stylist from Las Vegas, was loading up her skis at Deer Valley one December afternoon and noted to a friend that they hadn’t seen any snowboarders.
“Not that I don’t like them. I have many friends that snowboard, but it’s just different. A little more relaxing,” Dudek said. “If I was a snowboarder, I’d probably think differently.”
– Associated Press writer Doug Alden and Tahoe Daily Tribune city editor Jeff Munson contributed to this story.
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