It has been an unusual season for Wyoming’s ski resorts dealing with not only a lack of natural snow, but in some cases unseasonably warm temperatures.
The struggle has been particularly acute for small, community ski resorts, many of which told Cowboy State Daily they’ve been operating for three and four months now without revenue.
The situation has one of them throwing in the towel on the entire season. Sleeping Giant Ski Area in Cody told Cowboy State Daily it has decided not to open for the 2024 ski season, and it would refund season pass holders’ money, even as the winter forecast suggests season-saving snow is on the way.
“We need about 55, 60 people on the mountain on an operating day,” Sleeping Giant owner Nick Piazza told Cowboy State Daily. “And we were able to keep a lot of our managers kind of on standby, but a lot of our hourly staff, they kind of are moving on to other jobs. Even if we get 9 feet of snow tomorrow, we were going to have a hard time getting open.”
That has forced a tough decision, Piazza said.
“We decided the most responsible thing would be to return season pass holders their money and give this season a pass,” Piazza said. “We will kind of regroup and go for it next season.”
Humor Helps Take The Edge Off
Sleeping Giant staffs up in October, just in case weather is favorable for an early Thanksgiving weekend opening. Usually, though, opening weekend is more like the first part of December.
That’s true for other community ski resorts as well.
“We’re usually able to open, if not Thanksgiving weekend, the weekend right after that,” White Pine Ski Area and Resort General Manager Katie Lane told Cowboy State Daily. “But we couldn’t get open until after Christmas this year.”
Even then, the Sublette County resort has only been able to open one run from the top, which has had them selling reduced price tickets.
Lane has been keeping a lucky squeeze ball at the ticketing desk, encouraging people to squeeze it for snow. They’ve also had an online media campaign urging followers to do snow dances wherever they are.
The humor has helped take the edge off of all the waiting.
“You know, when you only make money four months out of the year, and one month has already gone, that’s pretty tough,” she said.
With substantial snow and colder temperatures now in the forecast, Lane hopes White Pines can open more ski runs by this weekend and get back to more normal operation.
In the meantime, White Pine has put out a survey to subscribers to gauge whether there’s any appetite for remaining open into April — if conditions allow.
So far, that has 150 responses, mostly favorable.
“We’ll see,” she said. “Typically, once spring break hits, people don’t want to ski any more. But that’s why we put it out, to just kind of see what people are thinking, and so far everyone is positive for us trying to stay open as long as we can.”
Pine Creek Open, Finally
Pine Creek Ski Resort in Cokeville opened Friday for its first day of operation, a full month after its more usual opening date.
Alicia Etcheverry with Pine Creek said she’s not sure extending the season is a viable answer for the ski resort.
“What we’ve found here in Cokeville is usually by late March, a lot of people are kind of tired of winter and they kind of stop coming,” she said. “We don’t get enough visits to offset our overhead.”
Diehards who are passionate about skiing as much as they can will come out, Etcheverry said.
“But like last year, with the incredible snow we got, we were able to run a few bonus days, but it wasn’t enough people coming to really offset our overhead,” she said.
Etcheverry was excited about forecasts predicting more snow, but said it’s a bit of a two-edged sword right now.
“I don’t know if it’s a paradox, but basically you want to have winter storms so you have good coverage, but it does affect people who might not want to drive in that kind of winter storm,” she said. “So here we are opening weekend, and we’re going to be blessed with some snow.
“But depending on conditions for driving … I’ll be intrigued to see how it pans out. I think everybody’s chomping at the bit.”
‘No Quick Fix’
Sleeping Giant, unlike White Pine, Pine Creek and many of Wyoming’s other community ski resorts, is not solely dependent on natural snow to function.
The resort put about $100,000 into improving snow-making equipment in 2021, in a bid to ensure it could have an earlier season.
“We knew it had some fundamental problems still, mainly the underground piping system was quite old and prone to blowouts and things like that,” Piazza said. “But we had bought new guns and thought we had a pretty good turnkey system for covering part of the mountain so we could get open, you know, at least partially early.”
When temperatures dove down over the Christmas holidays, Piazza thought that was going to do the trick.
“We were, in our opinion, about a foot of snow away from being able to open,” he said. “Our plan was to make snow all through the holidays.”
Instead, a main line blew out. When a specialist came in to look at the situation, he found not just one but several leaks in the system — too much for a winter patch job.
“There was no quick fix,” Piazza said. “It’s definitely kind of a summer project kind of thing.”
After that, temperatures warmed back up again and the resort lost most of the snow coverage it had gained.
“I was up there last weekend and it’s pretty barren on the lower part of the mountains still,” Piazza said.
As far as forecasts of snow for this weekend, Piazza said it’s been hard to get excited about that.
“We were supposed to get snow last weekend, too,” he said. “And it was a pretty intense storm. But you know, it was still about 10 miles from us. We could see snow falling from where we were, and it didn’t quite make it to us.”
A Lot Of Upgrades
Better snowmaking hasn’t been the only thing Piazza has invested in at Sleeping Giant since taking it over from a nonprofit foundation in 2020.
“One reason this winter has been such a gut punch for us is that we actually put several hundred thousand into expanding trail infrastructure,” he said. “We put in a new software system. We rebuilt the computer system on one of the lifts. We rebuilt our magic carpets. You know, we’ve done a lot of work.”
They also matched a local $50,000 grant, dollar for dollar, to add a tubing park, with the idea it would help the park open earlier and stay open later in the season.
“So, we were really excited to take all that, you know, we increased groomable territory by about 30%, and we added 20 new runs,” Piazza said. “So we really thought we were going to come and pull things out of the box this year and really knock people’s socks off.”
Losing an entire season is a big blow for a small ski resort, Piazza said, but it’s also a loss for the community.
“We kind of plan our whole winter around Sleeping Giant,” he said. “We bring a lot of people into the community.”
Last weekend, in fact, Sleeping Giant was to host a group of artists in town for an art installation for a ski weekend. More recently, Piazza had a group of people in from the Ukraine, where he has business interests, come to town for a ski trip.
“We were hosting them, you know, to kind of get them out of the shelling that’s going on right now,” Piazza said. “But there’s just not enough snow. It is what it is, and we’re going to take them snowmobiling in Yellowstone.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.