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Snow Trax: New Mexico ski areas finally have snow, set to open soon

December 2, 2016 GMT

Welcome to another season of Snow Trax, a weekly roundup of regional snow sports news and information.

A combination of the cyclical La Niña weather pattern, which tends to push winter storms across the northern states and leave the Southwest and the South high and dry, and the cumulative and growing effects of climate change appear to be delaying the onset of winter in the region.

However, Ski Santa Fe will open Saturday with Midland, Easy Street and Pine Flats available. All facilities will be functioning, including Chipmunk Corner Children’s Center. Lift tickets are discounted ($62 for adults, $53 for students, $48 for children and $50 for seniors) until more terrain opens. The basin accumulated decent natural snow on its upper slopes but not much at the bottom, reporting a 22-inch base.

Pajarito opens Saturday and Sunday with one top to bottom beginners run, Bruce’s Boulevard to Lone Spruce, accessed via the Aspen Chair. The beginner’s sub-area might also open. Tickets are $29. It will resume operations Dec. 9-11, then from Dec. 16-Jan. 1, adding runs as conditions allow.

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The only ski areas operating now near Santa Fe are Sipapu and Red River, both with extremely limited terrain. Sipapu reports 14 inches on its available runs and Red River, 24. Sipapu begins daily operations Friday, while Red River is open Friday through Sunday, with daily service beginning Dec. 9.

Taos Ski Valley delayed its opening until Dec. 15.

“We are currently getting snow and the forecast is looking much better,” TSV spokesman Dave Smith said. “But we are not announcing our new snowfall totals or base depth until we open for the season. How much more do we need? There are different depths all over the mountain. The winds have affected some areas, both drifting and scouring, so we can’t put a number on it [average depth]. Snowcats have been on the hill pushing the snowmaking and packing down the new snow.”

Angel Fire plans to open Dec. 9, Sandia Peak on Dec. 17 and Ski Apache in mid-December.

Southern Colorado is faring a bit better, particularly Wolf Creek. It has a 40-inch base, with 95 percent of the area open, including the Knife Ridge and Horseshoe Bowl. Purgatory has the second-best base in Colorado with 27 inches, two lifts running and top to bottom skiing off the six-pack Chair 1. Crested Butte reports a 20-inch base and limited lifts running. Yet to open are Monarch, with a 16-inch base and Telluride with 24 inches. Silverton expects to begin guided-only operations Dec. 29, and on a Friday through Sunday basis.

Central Colorado resorts are hurting. Aspen reports a 14- to 25-inch base, Breckenridge and Vail 18 inches each and even normally cold and snowy Arapahoe Basin at just 18 inches. Utah is equally bereft, with Alta yet to open. Snowbird reports a decent 44-inch base. For the nation’s best skiing, hop in your private jet to Mount Baker, Wash., which reports a 60- to 90-inch base.

What’s new

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Once the snow really does fly, what new developments might we find at local ski areas?

Ski Santa Fe spent its summer finishing the interior of its new 5 million gallon water storage tank, which substantially increased snowmaking capacity. Thinning was completed on a new glade, called Cody’s, between Avalanche Bowl and Desperado. Last winter it was accessible and quite a thrill; it should now be even better.

Red River completed the most important on-mountain project in the state, installing its first new chair in many years. It is the resort’s first quad, and replaces an old, slow double at the top of the mountain, a sector that often has the best natural snow on the mountain and some rare aspen forest skiing. The new chair also follows a slightly new alignment, taking it higher and lining it up better with the top of the Silver Chair.

Another significant project was the construction of a new hotel at Taos Ski Valley, The Blake. Named after the founding family of the ski area, it is the first resort-owned hotel to be built there. The attractive slopeside property includes 80 luxurious rooms (including 15 suites), plus a wine and tapas bar, spa, fitness center and retail shops on the ground floor. The building replaced the former resort center operations structure just steps from Chair 1. It will open Feb. 1.

Angel Fire improved its terrain parks and widened several of the most popular trails for its pending 50th anniversary season. Under the direction of terrain park designer Jon Eppler, a new boarder-skier cross course is being added to Liberation Park.

“Boarder cross courses are the fastest growing areas of interest for skiing and snowboarding families,” Eppler said. “Last season, we left the course up that we built for the USASA Boarder-Skier X Games for our guests to try out and it was super popular.”

The resort also expanded “Stash Parks” launched last season, scattering natural snow features and logs to ride along the edges of beginner and intermediate runs. It also purchased two brand new Pisten Bully 400 snowcats to improve grooming operations.

Angel Fire will hold a celebration Jan. 19-22 to mark the its 50th anniversary. Lift tickets for the first 550 skiers/boarders each day will be $5.50 — the cost when the resort opened in 1966.

The company that now owns four regional ski areas — Sipapu, Pajarito, Purgatory and Arizona Snowbowl — announced it is investing $10 million in projects for the 2016-17 season, following up on last year’s $10 million multimountain improvement campaign.

“We continue our commitment to transform the overall mountain experience for all our guests at our four resorts,” managing partner James Coleman said.

Sipapu extended both Howdy and Lower Bambi, adding nearly five acres of skiable terrain. Sipapu’s newest quad, which opened last season, provides access to these new trails. Sipapu’s historic lodge and day room have also undergone a massive remodel.

Pajarito worked this summer and fall with the Los Alamos Ski Club to improve the area’s 700 acres of tree skiing, targeting sections damaged by recent fires, creating new trails and glades. In 2015, Pajarito added a 10 million gallon holding pond for snowmaking, and filled the pond to capacity this summer.

Purgatory added a new two-way surface lift on the backside of the mountain, improving access to the high-speed quad last season and some of the best fall line skiing on the mountain. Arizona Snowbowl, near Flagstaff, installed its first high-speed lift, the only 6-pack in the state. The new Grand Canyon Express is nearly a 6 minute ride, and comes on the heels of Snowbowl’s first quad chairlift, which debuted last winter. New trails and snowmaking have also been added at Snowbowl.

Daniel Gibson of Santa Fe can be reached at danielgibsonNM@gmail.com.