Worth the wait
Ski season starts small, but experts hint at big finish

Worth the wait

A skier talks to the lifties at Purgatory's Six-Pack on opening day, Nov. 18. The resort opened with just two runs, accessed via an up- and download via the Six Pack. However, weather experts say conditions are about to change for the better, thanks to the arrival of El NiƱo./ Photo by Scott Wachob

Tracy Chamberlin - 11/23/2023

Purgatory only has two runs open, Wolf Creek has just a patch of snow near the base, and Telluride isn’t even considering opening yet.

Despite some help from Mother Nature this week, local ski areas are off to a slow start.

Early offerings for Purgatory Resort’s opening day Nov. 18 included just two front side runs – Westfork and El Diablo – and a portion of the Headwaters Terrain Park. All are located underneath Lift 2, which requires an up- and download from Lift 1, aka the Six-Pack.

According to those who showed up for the first weekend of the season, it was a good day on the slopes despite the limited terrain. 

Most of this was credited to the resort’s snowmakers and groomers, but the $1.25 million that has been invested in snowmaking infrastructure over the past few years also made a difference.

“Our mountain operations team has been working around the clock to deliver a great, early-season experience, and we are excited to welcome everyone back,” Purgatory’s General Manager Dave Rathbun said in a statement.

The other big changes for Purgatory heading into the 2023-24 season check off some longtime wishes from locals – additional parking and upgraded bathrooms. 

During the off season, workers expanded two parking lots: the lower Columbine Lot and the Gelande Lot off Highway 550. They also added two shuttles to the fleet, hoping to reduce wait times for a ride to the base. 

Finally, the bathrooms at Powderhouse and Dante’s have been remodeled as part of the resort’s Phase II upgrades. 

There’s less on the new-and-improved list when it comes to season pass options and lift tickets costs. For the second season in a row, Purgatory is using dynamic pricing or demand-based pricing for its daily lift tickets. This strategy adjusts prices based on demand. The more people who buy tickets, the higher the price goes. 

The practice is common for airlines and hotels but is now seeping into the ski industry. Resorts that use it say it’s an important tool to address staffing needs and tackle overcrowded lift lines that can negatively impact the guest experience. 

“It’s really only one of the levers we have to manage those busy days,” Theresa Graven, PR Strategist for Purgatory Resort, explained.

The starting price for a daily ticket at Purgatory is just $9, but it goes up every time someone purchases one. “It rewards people for planning ahead,” she added.

In addition to the daily tickets, the resort still offers season passes, flex passes, free power passes for kids and transferable parent passes. 

According to Graven, the Parent Share Pass, which allows two parents to share one pass, is something no one else in the industry is doing. It’s just one of the ways the resort hopes to grow its future customer base. 

“Our primary focus is to make skiing and snowboarding more accessible and enjoyable for everyone,” Rathbun explained in a statement.

Elsewhere in the southwest ski world, Wolf Creek opened a portion of its beginner area earlier this month. The current base there is 15 inches. 

This year, Wolf Creek has added a new lift to its beginner terrain called Tumbler. “By adding a third lift to the beginner lift ticket package, the Nova Lift and Lynx Learning Center will see a more familiar, low-density skiing experience found around the rest of the mountain,” according to the resort’s press release. 

Wolf Creek also made progress with planned upgrades like seasonal locker rentals, added shuttles and extended snowmaking to the top of the Treasure Stoke lift. 

Telluride Ski Resort, on the other hand, isn’t likely to open until early December. “Due to recent and forecasted warm weather, we will have a delayed opening,” the latest press release explained. An announcement on the future calendar is expected after the Thanksgiving holiday. 

Even though resorts are only opening with a handful of runs – or not at all – it’s certainly not time to sound the alarm. 

According to those in the know, it might take some time for this season to get under way, but it will be worth the wait. 

The local go-to guru for all things meteorological, “Durango Weather Guy” Jeff Givens, has been watching the weather patterns throughout the year. He predicts an El Niño that would bring a late start to the season, developing into winter weather with below-average temperatures and above-average snowfall.

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a “strong” and “growing” El Niño as well. 

“El Niño is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific,” explained the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For some parts of the world, this could mean floods, drought conditions and even devastating wildfires. 

For the Southwest, it typically means average to below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation with significant snowfall starting around the first of the year and continuing through April.

“I expect El Niño to be in charge for fall then the warm waters of El Niño will transition … This will result in a winter that gets under way in January and lasts through April or May,” Givens explained in a September post. 

Indeed, as we speak, a storm is shaping up to hit the San Juans this holiday weekend. As of Tuesday, Givens was predicting 8-12 inches for Silverton and more than a foot for Purgatory and Wolf Creek. In other words, as he urged in an earlier post, “DON’T PANIC.” ?

Worth the wait

Despite a lack of real snow, skiers and boarders showed up for Purg's opening weekend, which was reportedly good thanks to grooming crews and the resort's upgraded snow-making system./ Photo courtesy Christian Ridings