Forecasting an ‘El Ninja’ winter
Ryan Summerlin October 25, 2013
A month from now, we should be skiing at PCMR, with the others to follow in short order. With the temperatures this week in the 60s, and conditions perfect for getting out on the bike, it’s a little hard to imagine skiing. But we all know how that can change. Nobody can remember what year it was, but a whole bunch of friends were talking about the year we were mountain biking in T-shirts on Tuesday, and skiing deep snow, all the way to Jupiter, on the Thanksgiving Day opening.
The resort had given up on the opening, and told their employees to go have a nice holiday weekend. So when they suddenly were open, all the way to the top, the management was out there bumping chairs and trying to remember how to work the lifts. That’s my kind of seasonal transition. Mud season lasted all of about 12 hours. Things have become so paved and polished around town that mud season isn’t what it used to be. But for those of us out in the hinterlands, it’s still there, still muddy, and not going anywhere soon.
Now that the leaves are off the trees, I’ve had a better chance to take my hornet nest census. The theory, based on no scientific evidence at all, is that when the hornets build their football-sized nests high in the trees, there will be a lot of snow, and when they build closer to the ground, it will be a light winter. There are lots of references to the theory online, but I learned it from a neighbor who lived to be 103. He was either filled with the accumulated wisdom of the ages, or senile. He swore by the hornet nest theory, and when I’ve kept enough of a record to go back and compare observations made in October with the runoff in May, it seems to work.
So this year, there aren’t a lot of hornet nests. Last year there were none. The hornets went to Florida or something. This year, with the leaves gone, I’ve been able to find a dozen or so while hiking around with the dogs. They are uniformly high in the trees. Some years there will be some outliers, with the bulk of the nests either high or low, and then a couple in completely unexpected places (like in the snow blower when I’m trying to attach it to the tractor). This year, they seem to be unanimous about being high in the trees. If the theory holds, we’re in for a lot of snow this winter.
The folks at the National Weather Service haven’t published anything yet that I’ve been able to find. They always talk about the "El Niño" and "La Niña" factor that has something to do with water temperatures way out in the Pacific. And after lengthy explanations of the Niño/Niña factor, and its dramatic effect on the weather, they always come to the conclusion that Utah is on the border of the area that is affected by it. However dramatic the impact will be somewhere else, we will experience average conditions. What we need is a ninja winter.
Weather aside, it will be an interesting winter. As Vail takes over the Canyons we could see some significant changes. It’s too early to see anything major this season — obviously too late to be installing new lifts — but to make their deal work, they have to dramatically increase skier days. They have to dramatically increase utilization all season long. The whole town operates at about maximum capacity on Christmas, MLK, and Presidents Day. Otherwise, we have a lot of excess capacity, which we all enjoy by skiing directly into the chair.
That will have to change. Increased hotel occupancy, more traffic in restaurants and retail, more traffic at Kimball Junction, and long lift lines are the only way it works. If anybody can make that happen, Vail can. If they are able to succeed at the Canyons, the success will spill over into the entire community. Like it or not.
Vail’s first introduction to town was the scud missile with the PCMR eviction notice attached. They have backed off and presented the warm and fuzzy side, handing out generous grants. CEO Rob Katz gave an interview where he expressed a respect and understanding of the unique character of Park City. But he was not the least bit reticent about the overall vision, which includes a takeover of PCMR to create the biggest ski resort in North America. Put the respected Vail brand on that, and the earth moves. We’re not in Kansas anymore. Their business model in other markets has been to gain control of every cash register in town. Vertical integration, it’s called. Nobody in the industry does it better, or more aggressively.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.