Longform

The Big Steep

Page 4 of 6

"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.

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Michael Kiefer