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Making snow bank

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ASHLAND — A total of 98,667 skiers and riders enjoyed Mount Ashland in the 2018-19 ski season, nearly three times the 35,586 during 2017-18, a shortened, low snow year. In 2016-17, the last full season, the mountain had 80,849 guests.

All those visitors were good for the bottom line of the nonprofit operation. A board of directors’ goal is to have $800,000 in the bank Dec. 1 to cover possible low snow years, said General Manager Hiram Towle. Forecasts suggest the area will have between $1.1 million to $1.2 million on hand Dec. 1, 2019, he said.

“Our basic strategy is to have enough cash on hand so we don’t suffer from low snow years and so that we can open as early as possible to ski and ride,” said Hank O’Dougherty, Mount Ashland Association board president.

Revenue from tickets, passes, ski school and rentals was more than $2.2 million, about $363,600 higher than projections. Lodge sales, which included food and beverage and retail, totaled $783,845, an increase of $316,869 over the budgeted amount.

The area didn’t open at all in 2013-14 and took on a government loan to cover obligations. The 2017-18 and 2014-15 seasons were also low snow years, but a shift in approach allowed continued operations.

Some of this year’s success can be attributed to marketing out of area a bit more, said Towle, with efforts targeted at California.

“We’ve been seeing people from California, even from Southern California,” said Towle. “We are an alternative to what you see in Lake Tahoe.”

Some Tahoe resorts have ticket prices that start well over $100 per day while the area tends to get crowded on weekends. Mount Ashland’s weekend and holiday adult walkup day ticket price was $52.

Efforts to adapt the area to operate at lower snow levels have paid off. The area was able to open up one day earlier than planned this season on Dec. 5. Among items that have helped skiers and riders in low snow conditions are loading ramps that need only an inch of snow on two lifts, trimming of vegetation on slopes and construction of snow fences to help keep snow from blowing away.

Other factors that helped boost numbers, Towle said, have been efforts to grow the base through skier and rider learning programs and an increase in the number of residents in the Rogue Valley.

Mount Ashland’s parking lot filled up seven times during the 91-day season. Some years it has been full as many as 10 days. Availability of free, hourly bus service both ways between Ashland Hills Inn and Suites and the mountain on weekends and holidays likely helped. A total of 5,500 visitors rode the bus this season.

Three more web cams were added to the mountain’s online display. The new locations added to a view from the lodge and a view from the top of the mountain that was lost part way through the season when a cable was accidentally severed.

“(The new cameras) give you a better view of what you are going to get when you come to the mountain,” said Towle

A new snow fence next to the Sonnet beginner lift area not only kept more snow in place but also added wind protection to one of the windier areas on the mountain.

Summer work will include completion of the lodge exterior, part of a larger remodel and expansion finished for 2017-18. A campaign to help fund the work raised about $195,000, half of which came as a match from the Karen and Sid DeBoer Foundation.

“We have basically created a donor base that appreciates that, when we use (money), we are using it well,” said O’Dougherty. “The whole thing is to make sure ... when there’s snow on the ground we will always be open.”

Portable snow fencing is being explored as a way to retain snow in the area just off the main parking lot. The fencing would be movable so that the viewscape is not obstructed for summer visitors, said Towle. Loading ramps will be built for the Comer and Aerial lifts. Work over the summer is estimated to be about $100,000. The area is also looking at equipment for “snow farming,” moving the white stuff to areas where it’s needed.

Sales of 2019-20 season passes during April totaled over $450,000 but had been budgeted to bring in $400,000 said Towle.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Skiers and snowboarders ride the top of the mountain on the Ariel chairlift Friday morning at Mt Ashland.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune A pair of skiers were excited to be the first to load onto the Windsor chairlift at Mt Ashland’s opening day Friday morning.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Opening day at Mt Ashland, December 7, 2018.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune A skier makes his way down Windsor chairline Monday morning after Mt Ashland opened up to the public after a day of closure due to weather conditions.