Standing in the sun at the base of Snow King Mountain’s new gondola on a not-too-cold afternoon, it was a beautiful bluebird Wednesday to get in a few lunchtime laps. There was just one little glitch.
“Folks, the gondola’s closed for maintenance. Sorry!” a worker told skiers just as KHOL arrived for an interview with Ryan Stanley, president and general manager of the resort.
“You know, it’s a brand-new machine and we’re figuring out how it works and the kinks and all the different things,” Stanley said. “And so far, it’s actually been super consistent and good. We’ve had very few problems this season.”
Stanley also said he’s been getting positive feedback from the community about the changes at the mountain, despite the late opening and arrival of the snow.
“I get texts, you know, every other day from folks who are like, ‘Whoa, I’m so impressed with what you guys did here! I can’t even believe it. It’s like a whole different mountain!’ And so that’s pretty cool to hear, and it’s been a ton of work over the past year to get to this point.”
A couple hundred feet up the mountain at the base of the Cougar chairlift, skier Jack Ford agreed that there’s been “a lot of buzz around Snow King this year.”
Ford lives in East Jackson and is a regular at the town hill, especially during the week.
“The gondola’s been incredible. Very high speed. Gets up you there real quick,” he said. “[I] kind of miss the Summit lift in some ways, kind of had some sentimental value. But no, it’s [the gondola is] great–[you] get to warm up and zip right on up there.”
Some other locals, though, like Abby Paffrath, still prefer to earn their turns with an uphill approach. KHOL caught up with Paffrath as she was starting to skin up the mountain.
“I work three days a week. I have an office in town, and so on my lunch break instead of going to get something to eat, I put something in my bag and start walking up and have some snack at the top and ski down and go back to work,” she said. “It’s awesome.”
Neither Ford nor Paffrath had tried the new backside terrain in the south-facing Leeks Canyon yet when they talked to KHOL, but ski instructor Kai Hoffman said it’s been great for his students.
“It’s opened up a lot of the mountain for us. It’s given us more possibilities especially with some beginner skiers here as well as intermediate,” Hoffman said while instructing a group of his young students to board the Cougar lift in groups of three. “We added two more [magic] carpets up at the top of the gondola as well, so yeah, we’re looking pretty good right now. We’re pretty happy with all the new changes that we made this year.”
Of course, not everyone in town was excited about the Snow King expansion. Many local residents, environmental organizations and even the Jackson Town Council expressed concerns about everything from impacts on local wildlife to changing the character of the town hill. KHOL also asked Stanley if he worries about the impact of climate change on the resort, with a recent study predicting that some parts of the Mountain West could be without snow for years at a time in as little as 35 to 60 years from now.
“We’ve actually focused big time on diversifying year-round, which most ski resorts haven’t,” he said. “We were ahead of the game in 1978 when they installed the Alpine Slide here. And that was for decades the lifeblood, frankly, of the ski area. When the ski area lost millions of dollars in the wintertime trying to operate, the summer activities were actually what turned things around and allowed them to keep going.”
Stanley also said snowmaking will be a critical technology for ski resorts moving forward—and that’s something Snow King is no stranger to. Right now, for example, machines are hard at work to try and fill in the new backside terrain.
“We’re definitely less than half the snowfall that Targhee or Jackson Hole [resorts] gets on average here at Snow King. And so, we have to depend on snowmaking,” Stanley said. “The more automated and high-tech you can make your system, the more successful it can be. And so, we’re going to continually be working on our snowmaking infrastructure in the coming years to make it more automated, less manual and so that you can adapt quicker to changes in temperature.”
But even with new snowmaking infrastructure installed at Snow King this season, Stanley—like many other locals—said it would still be nice to get a little more of the natural stuff.