What Happens to a Ski Town When It Doesn’t Snow

It’s not all bad—the trail running and mountain biking are still sweet.


All the cues were there: the days grew shorter, the Thanksgiving turkey was carved and holiday lights were strung. But winter, it seemed, didn’t get the hint.

And as the calendar marched through November and into December in Telluride, Colorado, winter remained conspicuously absent.

Instead, warm temperatures and clear, dry days prevailed. With snowmaking hampered, the resort’s opening day was delayed twice. And the arrival of December didn’t change things; Telluride didn’t experience a single measurable snowfall for the first 20 days of this month. Just sun, sun and more sun.

While the average snowfall for Telluride’s resort is about 280 to 300 inches, it’s currently sitting at a woeful 19 inches. Snowpack is 15 percent of normal. Skiing is limited to manmade snow.

Telluride isn’t alone. Resorts from Vail to Eldora have been affected by the stubborn ridge of high pressure that parked itself over the state this fall.

So what happens when it doesn’t snow in a ski town whose economic engine relies on white stuff falling from the sky?

Mostly, we adapt. During the time of year typically marked by scraping windshields, shoveling snow, and enjoying the first powder days of the season, locals have been mountain biking, climbing and running, and seeking out work opportunities where they can find them.

An undercurrent of anxiety runs through the community about what will happen is the weather doesn’t change soon. But many also see the no-snow winter as an opportunity for different kinds of adventures in the San Juans.

Drew Ludwig is a runner, skier, artist and guide who has lived in Telluride off and on since 1999.

Like many mountain denizens, he cobbles together a living by stitching together several seasonal jobs. One of those is heli-ski guiding for Helitrax in the winter.

Despite that, he can’t say he minds that it hasn’t really snowed this year. That’s because the no-snow season turned into an opportunity for him as a runner to explore some of his favorite high-alpine trails in the context of sunny winter days.

“Usually there’s this transition where just as I start to really get into shape, it starts to snow and I put on boots. That didn’t happen this year. And so I just kept running, and I kept running bigger and bigger things,” he said.

In December, he ran the Sneffels Highline — one of the region’s banner high-alpine summer trails — three times. He saw bighorn sheep high on a rock escarpment, encountered the biggest herd of elk he’s ever seen, and had the trails mostly to himself.

As far as the ski work, Ludwig still thinks winter will come, and says Helitrax don’t usually get busy until after January anyway. And if winter doesn’t come, he says, he’ll find different work. But he’s enjoyed the anomalous weather.

“I kind of like it because I like it any time we’re reminded who’s in charge,” Ludwig says. “Our industry is tied to a phenomenon, and it’s important to remember that snow is always an if.”

As a ski instructor, Scott Keating is another resident whose work depends on snow. But much like Ludwig, he’s viewing the situation through rose-colored lenses. The number of lessons he’s had so far is about normal, if a little shy. And the weather, he says, forces everyone to try new stuff; he’s been snow-biking more recently, which has been a blast.

“The vibes are still the same, town is still town,” Keating said. “It hasn’t snowed yet, but we made it snow. The cold came, and that’s all we needed.”

Some of his peers are getting nervous about how the season will shape up, but he’s not sweating it.

“It’ll come, work will come, things will happen,” Keating said.

Other locals, however, have livelihoods that are more closely tied to a successful ski season. Penelope Gleason has run the outdoor gear shop BootDoctors with her husband Bob for many years in Telluride and Mountain Village.

She said she sees the bright side of the no-snow Telluride: news ways to adventure, more quality family time, a little more hanging out. But, she said, the weather is already impacting the economy.

“For the people whose livelihood depends on snow, it’s having a very large effect on our bottom line,” she said. “The adaptations that [BootDoctors] had to make is cutting down hours. We chose not to lay people off because we know that sooner or later the guests are arriving. But everyone has had to take a cut.”

She’s hearing similar stories from business owners, she said, of cuts or hiring postponing. And everyone is focused on getting creative with guest options in a town that typically defers to skiing.

Michael Martelon, CEO of Telluride’s Tourism Board, stressed that.

“Visitors have as good of time as we allow them,” Martelon said. “They know we don’t control the weather. This is our opportunity to shine in hospitality because that’s going to be in the spotlight.”

Some people have the financial wherewithal to walk away from their bookings, Martelon said, but they are the exception. So the tourists who booked early in the fall are still arriving, and it’s all about keeping them entertained.

In that vein, the Tourism Board has been promoting alternate activities like theater and art walks, he said.

“Don’t think for a minute I don’t want four feet of snow, I do,” Martelon said. “But you gotta play the hand you are dealt.”

The holder of the most high-stakes hand of cards is certainly the Telluride Ski Resort. As the biggest employer in the region, Telski represents the foundation of Telluride’s economy.

Telski’s CEO Bill Jensen said it’s taken some creativity, but the company has managed to keep the vast majority of its employees working. December’s payroll, he said, is the same size as it was last year.

“We made no cuts in how we ramp up,” Jensen said. “If the job they were here for wasn’t available, we found something new for them to do.”

The one exception, he noted, is ski patrol. But Telski is recruiting at least 15 patrollers for snow safety over the holiday week. That is due partly to the fact that during those crowded days — when there are often 8,000-plus skiers on the mountain — only about 14 percent of Telski’s terrain will be open. (Jensen said that terrain size is more appropriate for about 5,000 skiers.)

Jensen noted that despite the weather, bookings are almost on par with usual. Telski has also lowered the cost of its holiday tickets and ski school lessons by 25 percent to reflect the limited terrain, he said.

In addition, Telski has been offering free community dinners as well as nearly a dozen free staff meals to keep morale up.

“We do that because we think it’s the right thing to do,” Jensen said. “It also shows our employees that we’re thinking of them, and helps them bridge the gap to Christmas, when those nice holiday paychecks come.”

Photos by Katie Klingsporn (top, bottom), Drew Ludwig (middle)

 

Katie Klingsporn is the programming director of Telluride Mountainfilm. Read more of her writing at katieklingsporn.com
Showing 7 comments
  • Accidental FIRE
    Reply

    Goes to show you never know what you’re gonna get with mother nature. Last year my buddy and I did a trip to Ouray (from the east coast) for ice climbing, and the ice park closed in mid-Feb, the day after we left. We barely made it in time and since that was the sole purpose of our trip it was almost ruined. But we would have made the best of it anyway had it closed on us.

  • Ann Baldwin
    Reply

    Telluride is the most beautiful place on earth for snow skiing. Hope they get snow soon!

  • larry
    Reply

    this is telluride today absoluty no snow

  • John
    Reply

    The 1% will do just fine… As for the rest; so sorry …

  • merle
    Reply

    I live in Aspen and yes we adapt!! Its been great weather for mountain biking, hiking, fishing, and town is still crowded- which is great for the local places. My husband and kids did ski a few times, but honestly we usually dont ski alot this time of year anyways, since it is usually crowded- but they still had a great time on Aspen, Highlands and Buttermilk!!
    I was here the year of NO snow- back in the 70’s with my family, we pulled out the pics and there was NO snow- we drove over Independence pass, and even went fishing up at Rudi,
    I am sure once the holiday is over it WILL snow!!

  • chris filar
    Reply

    theres snow to ski in montana

    • jefemt
      Reply

      Zinke’s building A Wall…

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