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.

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Michael Kiefer