Snows (finally) return to Utah ski resorts, but labor issues persist

But the nation’s worker shortage and a variant-driven COVID resurgence still loom over Utah’s ski season.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People take to the slopes of Park City Mountain Resort as clear skies and some recent fresh snow draws the crowds on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.

Hardly a week ago, northern Utah’s mountains were dry, balmy and brown, a strange feel for December in a place supposedly world famous for its snow.

By Saturday, however, the central Wasatch was blanketed in the frosty mantle of winter. Many of the ski areas were in full swing, welcoming droves of skiers — local and tourists alike.

The infusion of snowfall and cold temperatures just before the holidays prompted sighs of relief for Utah’s billion-dollar ski industry.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People take to the slopes of Park City Mountain Resort as clear skies and some recent fresh snow draws the crowds on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.

“The snow came in the nick of time,” said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, the industry’s marketing arm. “No matter how long you have lived here, you get worried. Is there going to be enough snow this year? That can change quickly and it did. It’s a winter wonderland.”

By Saturday afternoon, Solitude Mountain Resort, which received 31 inches in the latest snowstorm, had more than half its terrain open and all but the Honeycomb Return lift running, according to spokeswoman Sara Huey.

But there are still two wild cards looming over Utah’s ski season: The nation’s labor shortage and a variant-driven COVID-19 resurgence. However, neither appears to be disrupting operations at this point, according to resort representatives.

“We’ve been doing fairly well on staffing. We increased our minimum wage to $15 per hour. That has been helpful,” said Huey, who was expecting a full house at the Big Cottonwood Canyon resort Saturday. “A ski area always has jobs posted for servers, shuttle drivers, things like that. We are at more than the bare minimum for operations.”

While the resorts in the Cottonwood canyons have most of their terrain open under a 5-foot base of snow, the Wasatch Back resorts are not so blessed. Terrain options at Deer Valley and Park City remain limited due to low coverage, but that is expected to change with the arrival of more snow this week.

On Saturday, Park City Mountain Resort had opened just 33 of its 356 runs and none of its terrain parks, running 17 of its 42 lifts. Alta, by contrast, was operating all five of its lifts with 84 of its 116 runs open.

“Resorts’ priority is getting terrain open,” Rafferty said. “They’ll run short in other areas to keep the mountain open.”

Park City’s skiable terrain is so vast — around 7,300 acres stretching from Jupiter Bowl north to Murdock Peak — that 9% of it still rivals other Utah ski areas. At Solitude, at least 40 of its 82 named runs are open.

“Honeycomb, Highway to Heaven, Evergreen Peaks, those areas around the fringe of our boundaries, it will depend on snow cover,” Huey said. “When the snow comes, it will also depend on the avalanche hazard. As that snow lays down, it depends on the ability of [the ski patrol] to mitigate that hazard in a reliable way so [that] we can open those areas for skiing in bounds.”

And while the past week’s storm was a welcome break in dry weather, much of the state remains in extreme drought. Utah’s snowpack is still only about three-fourths of the average for this point in the year, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The winter of 2020-21 produced one of the thinnest snowpacks on record, leaving Utah’s reservoirs seriously depleted and slopes bony, yet skiers filled the resorts like never before. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, or maybe because of it, last winter saw a record 5.3 million skier visits in Utah, according to Ski Utah.

Barring a pandemic lockdown, the state should expect more of the same this year.

“The travel trends that we’ve seen reported people are eager to take ski vacations this year,” said Alison Palmintere, Ski Utah’s director of communications. “We have resorts that are drivable from other states. We are excited the borders are open, and we are excited to welcome back some of our international visitors as well.”

Meanwhile, advanced bookings are strong, according to Rafferty.

“It’s misleading to compare with last year. It was very last-minute bookings. People weren’t sure what to expect,” Rafferty said. “People [this year] are more comfortable getting on a plane to travel. That’s good for the economy. Those destination skiers spend three times more than local skiers, renting skis, going out to eat.”

With the return of snowfall, so rose the avalanche risk, which was characterized as “considerable” across the Wasatch by the Utah Avalanche Center.

“Today has accident written all over it,” forecaster Drew Hardesty wrote in Saturday’s forecast. Human-triggered slides hundreds of feet across and 2 to 4 feet deep “are likely” on steep slopes facing northwest to east, the forecast warned.

In fact, a slide Friday buried a skier in Big Cottonwood Canyon’s Silver Fork. His two companions were able to rescue him unharmed after 10 harrowing minutes under the snow, the center reported.