The Big Steep
By modern ski-industry standards, Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff is a failure. It has no slope-side hotels and condos; no high-speed detachable quad lifts; no "terrain gardened" (bulldozed) slopes to make sure the downhill run is as effortless as the uphill ride; no snowmaking equipment; no picturesque village full of art galleries, gourmet restaurants and real estate agencies.
But even so, Snowbowl, at odds with all modern ski-business formulas, has turned a profit in three of the last four years, despite a snow drought in 1996, despite straitjacket limitations that forbid further development. Snowbowl is hemmed in by wilderness areas. It has been held to its boundaries of 25 years ago by bankruptcies and environmentalists and Native American tribes who would just as soon the resort didn't exist.
Those very limitations have helped shape its success.
Skiing at Snowbowl is like skiing 25 years ago, small and steep and natural, a throwback to a time when a ski trip was a day in the winter woods and not a vacation. The only discernible difference is that 25 years ago, snowboards hadn't been perfected. Snowbowl caters to people who want to ski, not visit a theme park on snow. And it capitalizes on a captive, snow-starved Phoenix audience. On weekends and holidays, its access road is a long parade of sledders and snowboard shredders, sightseers and cross-country skiers, downhillers heading uphill, most of them from Phoenix, desert denizens who drive to Flagstaff for a day in the snow, then retreat to the flatlands to spend the evening by the pool.
It's one of the highest ski areas anywhere, with a base elevation of 9,000 feet and a slope-top summit of 11,500 feet, "Clearly one of Arizona's natural wonders," its principal owner Eric Borowsky says. "How do you get a 12,600-foot-tall mountain in the middle of the desert that gets 250 inches of snow every year?"
The answer is volcanic. This was once a 15,000-foot volcano that blew its stack, and because of its violent origins, it is steep and harsh.
And though it's the third- or fourth-oldest ski area in the United States, it's had a serious case of arrested development.
"It's like a gawky teenager," says Matt Schrauth, a Phoenix real estate executive who spent 15 years as a ski instructor in Telluride when that resort was still a raw cowboy town. "It's beautiful but awkward and undeveloped. It's got great terrain and great tree skiing."
During the week, there are no lift lines and the slopes are serenely empty, long and lovely glides through the trees. Lunch is relaxed; apres-ski is a beer on the sun deck.
On Saturdays, the crowds bulk up past the 3,500 level, church groups and scout troops, working stiffs and high schoolers, out-of-control yahoos careening downhill with skis shoulder-width apart, badass snowboarders who use skiers as slalom gates, NAU students plopped down in midtrail to crank up snowboard bindings.
The snow can also be as temperamental as a teenager, oblivious to the seasons: scarce and rocky in the coldest parts of December, springlike in January, dumping powder in March. One day the winds can howl at 65 miles per hour, keeping the lifts shut down lest the patrons get blown to Williams, and the next day there can be shirtsleeves and sunburns on the sun decks outside the two lodges, while 2,500 feet up the mountain, the skiers are zipping up their jackets and shivering on the chair lift. It might be overcast on the bunny slopes of Hart Prairie and storming blizzard at the 10,000-foot level. Most years, the resort is open well into April. Last year, the snow was gone by March. The year before, there had been snowball fights on the summit on the Fourth of July.
But even at its worst, the snow is still very good, crisp and dry. On a recent January afternoon when the conditions were far below excellent, one German tourist riding the chair lift stridently insisted that he had brought his skis on a visit to friends in Phoenix, hoping he'd have a chance to rent a car and drive up to Flagstaff to steal even a couple of hours on the slopes.
"The snow is better here than in Europe," he said, but he lamented that there weren't any slope-side bars as in the Alps.
To the Hopi and Navajo, the San Francisco Peaks are sacred mountains, home to their deities and the site from which the rains come. If damage is done to the mountains, their religions claim, then disaster will come to all of us.
Native American medicine men ride the chair lift to the top in the summer and fall next to international tourists willing to wait up to an hour and a half just for the view, especially when the aspen leaves begin to yellow.
Flagstaff locals consider the San Francisco Peaks their playground and have not wanted to see it developed. Local environmentalists have fought nearly every attempt at expansion to the ski area in its 60-year history. Snowbowl has withstood an eco-terrorist attack and a court battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But during the course of the struggle, the surrounding forest was designated as wilderness area, forever locked out of reach to developers.
Snowbowl might have become a world-class ski area. It has the mountains and the terrain and the snow.
Instead, because of the cost of litigation and drag of court injunctions and the impossibility of expansion, it has remained an old-fashioned ski area, the kind of place you might have found 25 years ago, before skiing was an "industry."
And the general consensus is that this is good. In an era when skiing has become blander and more expensive, Snowbowl is still raw and woodsy and friendly.
"Areas like that remind those of us who have been in the business for a while what we liked about the sport and what we want to get back to," says Mike McMenamy of the National Ski Areas Association.
Peter Shelton, a contributing editor of Ski magazine and a correspondent to Outside magazine, adds, "You're talking about an experience that's disappearing."
Time Traveling on Skis
B.J. Boyle is ski-patrol director at Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff, snow sheriff, as it were, head disciplinarian despite his toothy grin, avalanche expert and rescuer of lost boys and fallen snow angels. With his mirrored sunglasses, his hat pulled low and collar zipped high against the mountaintop cold, about all that's visible of him is his ski-town mustache.
Once upon a time, Boyle was a Phoenician, but then he got addicted to the extended rush of controlled falling that is skiing's main allure. He's worked at the sacred mountains now for 17 years.
It's a stunning February morning, sunshine glaring off the groomed slopes and the wilder snows on the summits of mounts Agassiz and Humphreys above and the concave bowl that connects them and from which the resort takes its name. Boyle stands up from the chair lift and coasts down the ramp to start his patrol.
After a moment's kibitzing with other Snowbowl employees at the ski-patrol shack, he jumps down the Ridge trail, a steep black-diamond run that was buffed and polished the night before by the grooming crew.
Though Boyle is as comfortable on downhill skis and snowboard, today he's skiing on telemark skis, which, in essence, are downhill skis with an adapted cross-country binding that leaves the heels of his boots free. They give him greater mobility, he says, so that he can move uphill as on cross-country skis, or downhill as his job demands. And when he goes downhill, he alternates between classic genuflecting telemark turns and swooping parallel Alpine turns. He skis easily and gracefully, as if the skis were an extension of his legs and the terrain were mapped out in his unconscious.
When the ancient Europeans invented skiing, they had winter transportation in mind. With skis on their feet, they went uphill, downhill or across the hill.
Skiing for transportation long ago yielded to athletic endeavor; cross-country and telemark skiing were reinvented as separate sports. And at the same time, ski areas ceased to be mountain experiences and became winter theme parks.
In the 1960s, skiing in America still took place on weekends when parents (often of European heritage) loaded the kids into the station wagon and spent a day in the wintertime woods. Clarinet and accordion music doodled from loudspeakers.
As skiing became more popular, the fledgling resorts decided they could sell more than just uphill transportation. They added shops and restaurants and nightclubs and luxury hotels into the mix.
They added snowmaking to guarantee snow, invented grooming machines to make sure it was just perfect, carved acres and acres of trails and bulldozed the steeps to accommodate a perpetual crop of novice skiers and terminal intermediates who took an hour or two's worth of runs between sleigh rides and massages and hot-tub parties.
Skiing became a vacation, the kind that you saved for all year long.
And the price went up and up.
"The ski areas have abandoned any pretension that skiing is a middle-class endeavor," says ski writer Peter Shelton. "They're going directly for rich people."
And indeed, leaving out the cost of travel, the cost of food and lodging, a single day's lift ticket at Aspen, for example, now costs a whopping $56.
An all-day ticket at Arizona Snowbowl still costs only $31.
Boyle skis off the main trail and onto a narrow catwalk through the trees, skirting the boundary between the ski area and the wilderness area as part of his patrol. The glades below the catwalk are out of sight of the main trails, and, consequently, they are empty.
Back in the '70s, as one former "lift rat" confesses, the ski patrols and the lift attendants used to sneak off into the woods to smoke dope.
That's as gone as the snows of yesteryear.
The walkie-talkie pinned to the suspenders of Boyle's ski bibs crackles to life and a managerial sort in the main lodge orders him down for his mandatory drug test. It's a stipulation of the area's use permit with the U.S. Forest Service that the area's employees be drug-free; after all, they are giving first aid and operating heavy equipment.
Boyle grumbles about the indignity of having to drop everything to go pee in a jar, but he shifts gears anyway, points his skis toward the lodge and rockets back into the late 1990s.
A Fire Sale on Ice
Fifty-three percent of the skiers at Arizona Snowbowl drive up from metropolitan Phoenix--29 percent come from northern Arizona and the rest from elsewhere in Arizona and from California--and so it is not surprising that the man who heads the limited partnership that owns the resort is a Scottsdale businessman.
Eric Borowsky, 57, has a brandy-smooth voice and gray-haired good looks that recall the actor John Forsythe. He owns a pair of Valley companies that buy and sell and broker sales of apartment complexes. In 1992, he learned that Snowbowl, then called Fairfield Snow Bowl, was for sale.
"It was strictly an accident," he says. "I was looking at a [real estate] catalogue. We were actually looking at a hotel in San Diego that was going to be auctioned. And to my surprise, the Snowbowl was in the catalogue. I didn't even know it was for sale, and I'm fairly active in the Arizona real estate market."
Fairfield Communities, Inc., which owned hotels and resorts across the country, had filed Chapter 11, and was auctioning the property for a minimum bid of $4 million, a fire-sale price.
As ski-industry journalist Peter Shelton quips, "Four million is one chair lift at Vail--a relatively short one."
Borowsky had been a skier for most of his life and he had a second home in the Flagstaff area, and so he was familiar with the resort and intrigued that it was for sale. His research told him that the mountain got an average of 250 inches of snow and 125,000 skiers each year. Then he put together a limited partnership, raised $1.8 million as a down payment and financed the rest. He claims that the venture has been so profitable that he expects to retire the debt within the next two years. Between 1993 and 1995, according to Forest Service records, the resort reported sales of between $4.8 million and $5.8 million annually, and even last year, the worst snow year on record, it still grossed nearly $2.3 million.
"We don't buy anything unless it's a moneymaker," Borowsky says. "We looked at this as a business that had a very high return on investment and for the first three years the numbers were exactly right. And even in the fourth year, which would be called a disaster from a skiing standpoint, the business operated at break-even. This is going to be another excellent year."
Had Borowsky been in the ski business already, he might have turned the page of the real estate catalogue.
While Arizona Snowbowl was up for sale, bigger companies had come to take a look and turned away, uninterested, partly because it was clear that the Snowbowl would always look like skiing 30 years ago. Never mind the high altitude, the usually reliable snow and the ready labor source in Flagstaff, especially among the university students.
There was no room for expansion into the surrounding snow fields and no real estate to sell off aside from a scant 80 acres seven miles down the access road, and no chance of snowmaking because there's no water to make it with.
The national trend in the ski-area industry is toward consolidation. Vail built Beaver Creek, right up the road in Colorado, and then roared across Vail Pass to gobble up Keystone, which had already swallowed Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin.
The trend is hardly limited to the megaresorts. Boyne in Michigan bought Big Sky, Montana; Brighton, Utah; and Crystal Mountain, Washington. Sun Valley, Idaho, owns Snow Basin, Utah. A former owner of Vail is buying areas in Washington and California and Wyoming. A ski-area operator in Maine has been systematically buying up resorts in New England.
"It has a lot to do with real estate," says Claire Walker, a contributing editor for Skiing magazine.
And it has to do with spreading the liability should one resort suffer a snowless season, as happened in Arizona last year.
These are "areas that have an upside potential to them," says Mike McMenamy of the National Ski Areas Association. "You could feed one resort with another."
Arizona Snowbowl, however, is as upright isolated as the mountain it sits on, a 12,000-footer rising alone out of the desert. There are tiny ski hills in Williams and Tucson, and a large resort owned by the White Mountain Apache Tribe; little hope of synergy there.
McMenamy lumps Snowbowl in with what he describes as "southern" resorts, and he says they are "printing presses for money." But no mountain in North Carolina has elevations over 10,000 feet and the dry desert snow and vertical drop that can be had at those altitudes.
In fact, what are perceived as business weaknesses in the ski industry are Snowbowl's business strengths.
Without hotels and snowmaking, without the debt load of major investment, Borowsky contends, the resort's overhead is low.
"The other benefit over Aspen or Vail, is they have to import labor," he continues, "and it's very expensive for people to live around there, so the wages are higher. College students make up a large percentage of our employment and they're very flexible. They prefer to work only a few days a week so they can go to school and the main benefit to them is they get a ski pass."
Last winter was the driest in 35 years and the resort only managed to squeak out a 25-day season in February and March.
Because of the low overhead, Borowsky maintains, he was able to put the operation into hibernation. The 1992-93 and 1994-95 seasons had been very profitable, 1993-94 was average, and this season already promises to be good.
"So we had built up a lot of cash reserves and also paid down debt," he says. "Last year, although we would have preferred to make a lot of money, we didn't lose a lot of money."
San Francisco Piqued
At 12,643 feet, Mount Humphreys is the tallest of the San Francisco Peaks and the highest point in Arizona.
The Navajo revere it as one of four sacred mountains that mark the borders of their ancestral lands, and they make offerings to the supernatural beings who live there.
The Hopi believe that the peaks are home to the kachinas, the spirit messengers who bring rain. The Hopi look to the peaks every day for religious inspiration.
According to more recent legend, the peaks were first skied on in 1934 when a handful of young blades was disappointed by the lack of snow at the Flagstaff winter festival and went off to look for some. They found it on Hart Prairie, an open meadow just below the present-day site of the Arizona Snowbowl. Three years later, the Flagstaff Ski Club raised enough money and enough gumption to set up a primitive rope tow powered by an automobile engine. And a year after that, the ski area opened, the third or fourth in the country. Next year will see its 60th anniversary.
However, Snowbowl was not built in the best place on the peaks for skiing, but rather in a place that people could get to with 1930s technology. There is no water there. Most ski areas face north, away from the sun; Snowbowl faces due west, and although the bowl up top helps hold the snow, the trails below treeline can't be widened much lest they let in too much sunlight, which can be withering and blistering even in January.
The first chair lift went into operation in 1962, and for at least 10 years, Snowbowl remained a tiny backwoods ski hill. In the early 1970s, however, an out-of-state developer saw the potential for growth and presented a master plan to the Forest Service. The Flagstaff environmental community was taken by surprise, but fought back so hard that the developer packed up and left the ski area in receivership.
In 1974, the ski area was rescued by a Flagstaff ski-shop owner named Norm Johnson, who put up a half-million dollars to buy it.
Johnson's expansion plans were less ambitious than his predecessors', but they still generated 11 administrative appeals (protests) and written statements representing nearly 9,000 individuals. When his Environmental Impact Statement was approved by the Forest Service in early 1979, it allowed him to clear 50 acres, rebuild the existing chair lift and add two more.
Just seven months earlier, President Jimmy Carter had signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to protect traditional Native American beliefs, and a coalition of environmentalists and Native American tribes, most notably the Navajo and Hopi, seized upon it and filed suit to stop development.
Throughout the appeals and the Native American suit, Snowbowl was enjoined from any construction.
"All the time I was under stay of implementation," says Johnson. "I couldn't touch a rock, I couldn't touch a tree."
While the case dragged on, Johnson claims he was paying $300,000 in interest on a new chair lift he had purchased but could not install, and up to $30,000 a month in legal fees. Johnson won his case in federal court; a court of appeals upheld the decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court let the appellate decision stand. Johnson finally received his use permit in 1982, but he was financially and emotionally drained, and sold the resort to Fairfield Communities for $4 million. They kept him as manager.
As a compromise measure during the legal battle, the Forest Service designated 14,650 acres outside the ski-area boundaries as wilderness, forever proscribing development there, and limiting the ski area forever to 777 acres.
Fairfield also built a new lodge and paved the seven-mile road up to the resort, which brought new growth pains.
"It used to be the main complaint about Snowbowl was road access," says general manager J.R. Murray, who was hired by Fairfield and still runs the day-to-day operations. "When we paved that, the number-one issue became lift lines."
The environmental discontent didn't go away. In October of 1987, a self-styled eco-terrorist named Mark Davis climbed over the San Francisco Peaks with an acetylene torch and cut the bolts on several ski-lift towers. He called to warn the resort and then sent a letter in which he threatened to "chain the Fairfield CEO to a tree at the 10,000-foot level and feed him shrubs and roots until he understands the suicidal folly of treating the planet primarily as a tool for making money."
The letter rehashed the environmental and Native American issues of the preceding years, and then, as a further joke, the writer claimed he belonged to an organization he called EMETIC, or the "Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorist International Conspiracy."
Fairfield shut down the weekend sky rides on the chair lift and spent more than $50,000 to repair the damage.
"There was a cloud hanging over the ski area for a year and a half," says Murray. "Who was it, and was it going to happen again?"
Davis was implicated in the Snowbowl vandalism after he and three accomplices were caught trying to cut power lines into a Central Arizona Project facility as a dress rehearsal for a similar attack on the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Davis' trial in 1991 (which New Times covered in a 13-part series) ludicrously focused on whether he could have brought on a nuclear meltdown at the plant--assuming he ever got to it. He'd also vandalized a northern Arizona uranium mine. And because he had managed to get a $500 donation from the eco-prankster group Earth First!, the government dramatically dragged Earth First! founder Dave Foreman into the case. Davis pleaded down to committing $5,000 worth of vandalism and served four years in prison. Foreman was sentenced to probation.
At about the same time, Fairfield was filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and among its assets was the Snowbowl, which, until then, had never really made money for anyone. Fairfield sold the ski area for the same figure it'd bought it for, $4 million.
When Eric Borowsky's group took ownership in 1992, it kept the resort's management team intact, and set about stamping out the last embers of the political and environmental battles that had raged under the previous owners.
Borowsky met with the Indian tribes face to face instead of lawyer to lawyer, and as a goodwill gesture began sending the timber cut during trail widening to Hopi to be used as vigas on that wood-scarce reservation.
"The new ownership that Eric represents has been very positive for the tribe and he works with the tribe," says Leigh Jenkins of the Hopi cultural preservation office.
And neither the Forest Service nor the Sierra Club can find fault in his operations. The trail widening allowed under the resort's operating permit, however, was held up for two summers, an unexpected victim of the logging injunction ordered by federal court judge Carl Muecke on behalf of the Mexican spotted owl.
Locals have questioned the resort's right to close its parking lots to nonskiers on busy weekends, a policy upheld by the Forest Service. But other than that, Arizona Snowbowl is sitting quietly on the mountain.
Of course, the new ownership has not tried to expand.
The existing master plan on file with the Forest Service would allow the ski area to develop 76 more acres of trails and install two more lifts, more than will probably be done. Within the next two to five years, after the existing debt is retired, Eric Borowsky's managers intend to build a new lift up to the northernmost boundary to open up intermediate skiing through the trees there.
Testing the Limits
Ropes mark the edges of the ski-area boundaries just beyond the top of the chair lift, like buoy lines just offshore from the beach marking the limits of safe swimming.
Ski patroller B.J. Boyle ducks beneath the rope, just to show how easy it is to slip out of the safety of civilized skiing and into the backcountry.
"My whole reason for learning to ski was to get access to the backcountry," says Boyle.
But not today. The National Weather Service has just issued a severe avalanche warning. Two years ago, on a beautiful day just like this one, two snowboarders ventured out of bounds from this very spot, traversed a mile or so at treeline and then dropped into perfect untracked snow in one avalanche chute, sucked like insects into a Venus'-flytrap. For all its apparent calm, the snowpack was hanging tenuously, waiting for the slice of their boards to let go tons of snow. One of the shredders was swept to his death.
In the ski-patrol shack atop the Agassiz chair lift is a photograph of the fatal avalanche: snow boulders, 20-inch diameter trees snapped off and piled 20 feet high.
Out-of-bounds avalanche casualties are not uncommon in the Rockies and in Europe, but this was the first avalanche death in Snowbowl's 60-year history, and though it occurred well beyond the ski-area boundaries, the sheriff's office requested help from the Snowbowl ski patrols in the attempted rescue.
The new generation of out-of-bounders, weaned on designer ski areas, knows little about snow conditions. Many of them are snowboarders (who follow an anti-authoritarian god) and since snowboards are much easier to handle than skis in the crust and crud of ungroomed snow, they allow more inexperienced people out into the great beyond.
Ten years ago, as Snowbowl general manager J.R. Murray points out, fewer people ventured into the backcountry, "and they asked better questions."
Steve Jenner, a Forest Service snow ranger, adds, "Now we're getting 1,000 people in a season who know nothing about skiing in the backcountry."
They don't know well enough to bring food and water and matches and avalanche transceivers. Mountains, like the sea, make their own weather, roiling up from apparent calm, and like the sea, have to be dealt with cautiously and patiently.
Though today is sunny and clear, for example, yesterday's winds blew at 65 miles per hour whipping spindrift snow into white whirlwinds.
Both the Forest Service and the Snowbowl management have discussed whether they'll need to close backcountry access from the ski area by putting up hard boundaries or requiring the out-of-bounders to buy permits just to protect the foolish.
The allure of the snow is that great, especially for those who climb over the top to ski 4,000 vertical feet down the inner bowl.
"It's unbelievable," says the writer Peter Shelton, who lives outside Telluride and has skied all over the world.
"That mountain has everything that any mountain in the inner-mountain West has as far as skiing and snow and steepness and terrain," says former owner Norm Johnson. "You can go up to the top of the Agassiz lift and take your skis off on Highway 89 with cars whizzing by on the dry pavement."
If that terrain had been developed, along with the peaks to the north of the existing trails, Snowbowl would have become a major destination resort.
For better or worse, that will never happen.
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