Beige and green have a frustratingly firm hold on the slopes skiers and snowboarders have long since hoped would turn white. A few determined locals have been spotted hiking uphill to search out marginal turns at Ski Santa Fe while salivating over the Dec. 9 opening date, pushed back from this weekend via an announcement Wednesday. Some are driving more than an hour north to Sipapu ski resort, where man-made ribbons of white snow lay over a carpet of grass still bare enough beyond the reach of snowmaking equipment that a pickup truck was parked mid-mountain. The turns, however, were smooth, if a bit slushy. Some are eyeing several hours of driving north to Wolf Creek Ski Area in Colorado, which has about 40 percent of its terrain open.
The efforts may soon include burning effigies and sacrificing last season's gear to the fire in hopes it appeases whatever weather gods and they finally send some snow.
For all the excitement, just how far it carries through the season varies widely. Nationally, the National Ski Areas Association reported an average use of 10 visits per season pass for the 2016-17 season. In the Rocky Mountain region, which includes New Mexico, it's just 9.1. Ski Santa Fe lands in between the two at about 9.6 visits.
Then there are skiers like Doug Chiriboga. Though Taos and Telluride are in the mix, most of Chiriboga's average of 70 ski days a season are at Ski Santa Fe, just a half-hour drive from his house.
"I love every day that I go up there," Chiriboga says. "If it's snowing like hell, all the better—to the point where you have to stop and scrape your goggles like a windshield."
Chiriboga grew up in the mountains, but he didn't grow up skiing. The Andes near the South American cities where his father's work with the United Nations took his family weren't welcoming for a beginning skier. So it was decades later in Aspen, Colorado, that he made a first attempt at skiing with his wife, who has skied since age 5.
"We went up the lift, and of course I couldn't do anything. I barely got off the lift, and I wasn't about to ski down, so she talked me into going back down on the lift—embarrassed," he says. "I went to take a ski lesson for the day and became highly addicted to skiing from then on."
His wife aided in building up from those basics on some cautious initial runs.
"I was able to very carefully initially ski down the mountain, and then gradually just turn it into a dance, as it is now," he says, tapping the notebook page where he's written a favorite quote: "Skiing is a dance and the mountain always leads."
He's in the minority not just for his high-frequency use—one of the ways he's enjoying his retirement—but for having stuck with the sport at all.
Only about 15 percent of first-time skiers turn into long-term participants, according to data from the National Ski Areas Association. The trade association published a "Model for Growth" in 2000 that identified "unfavorable demographic trends," an increase in "time poverty" and climate change all as taking a hit on snow sports participation. It called for ski areas to dramatically change their approaches, lest they face more of the same. An annual "Conversion Cup Challenge" recognizes ski areas with programs successfully "converting" one-timers to repeat chairlift riders. Ski Santa Fe launched a "Snow Sports Passport" this year as an opening volley into that arena.
Overall, US ski resorts have seen little growth in visitation over the last 40 years. For the 1978-79 season, the trade association counted 50 million snow sports visits. Last winter saw just 54 million. In the same span of time, the US population has increased by 100 million.
The geography of that modest growth has mirrored US population trends. Western states have seen increases of more than 400 percent since 1940, more than double any other region of the country. Likewise, the biggest uptick in skier visits has been in the Rocky Mountain region, up from 15 million visits 40 years ago to 21 million last season.
Ski Santa Fe has bet they'll be sticking with it. The resort invested in infrastructure this year to allow more snowmaking in more places to make it possible to ski and ride whether or not those snow dances pay off.
The Enthusiast is a twice-monthly column dedicated to the people in and stories from our outdoor sports community. Elizabeth Miller is a part-time ski instructor at Ski Santa Fe.
Ski Santa Fe announced Wednesday it would delay the opening after to Dec. 9. We've updated the column to reflect this. Here's the press release:
La Nina Wins Round One. Ski Santa Fe Will Now Open December 9th.
Despite our snowmaking crews best efforts, La Nina has provided very difficult conditions for snowmaking and we just aren't ready to open.On a positive note, the forecast for the coming weeks is improved with cooler temperatures and maybe even some snow.We are confident that our snowmaking crews will take round two.
We anticipate a limited opening of the lower mountain. Lifts open will include the Super Chief Quad, Easy Street Double Chair, Chipmunk Corner Conveyor and Pine Flats Conveyor.Trails open will include Midland, Easy Street, Pine Flats and Chipmunk Corner. … Hope to see you on the mountain opening day!Think Snow!!!