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Mt. Ashland has good year, despite up and down snow

A family rides the Sonnet lift during the Dec. 18, 2021, opening day at Mt. Ashland. The ski area had 76 days of operation this season before closing March 27 as the snowpack dwindled due to warm weather. [Mail Tribune/file photo]

Despite a roller-coaster season for snowfall, Mt. Ashland Ski Area had its sixth best turnout in over 58 years with 93,000 skiers and riders hitting the slopes with tickets or passes.

“What it tells me is the valley is growing our skier base. When it’s a beautiful, sunny day people want to be outside,” General Manager Hiram Towle said of visitors who showed up despite sometimes sub-optimal conditions. “It was a roller-coaster year for snow, that’s for sure.”

The ski area opened Dec. 18 and had 76 days of operations before closing March 27 as the snowpack dwindled due to warm weather. The mountain has received 181 inches compared to an average of 265 inches.

Low snow spots can be filled in with snow brought from other areas. But a usual source, snowbanks in the parking lot, never built up. At the top of the Ariel lift, crews needed to use a wheelbarrow to bring snow from 60 to 100 yards away in to maintain paths to the runs that were in good condition.

“We didn’t even have a lot of snow to farm this year. The way we got through was that north-facing aspect and being one of the higher ski areas in Oregon. We never had a really good base, but it was enough and it held up well,” said Towle.

Skier visits were up 78% in December compared to the same month a year earlier, but then started to drop off. The parking lot filled up 10 times during January and December, compared to an average of three to four times per year.

Mt. Ashland returned to more normal operations after a season of pandemic restrictions that included face masks, limited access to the lodge and no group ski lessons or food and beverage services.

Night skiing returned after a year off and brought a revival of after-school ski programs by local schools. There were 21 evenings of skiing under the lights that drew about 9,000 participants

Like other outdoor recreation, Mt. Ashland saw a surge of visitors during the previous year as people went outdoors during the pandemic, said Towle. The area set a record with 106,003 visitors for 2020-21. There were 98,667 visitors during the good snow year of 2018-19, but just 35,586 the previous season, a low snow year.

The area was open 76 of a planned 87 days. All the days lost were at the time of the year when visitors usually taper off with temperatures climbing and people engaging in other outdoor activities, said Towle.

Mt. Ashland, a nonprofit, has over $3 million in cash on hand but much of that will be used for upcoming expenses and to get the next season underway, said Towle. The area’s board of directors aims to retain a $1 million cash reserve in the event the area doesn’t open, as happened in 2013-14, or to get through low-snow years.

“We didn’t lose money, but we didn’t bolster the rainy-day fund as much as we’d like to,” said Towle. Increases in wages and insurance premiums consumed revenue. The beginning wage is now $15 per hour, and the cost for liability and property insurance is $250,000.

Part of the reserve is money for installation of an enclosed, clear plastic canopy with a 150-foot moving carpet for the beginner ski area before the next season. Supporters raised money for the new feature through a campaign, with the Sid and Karen DeBoer Foundation matching gifts to cover the $250,000 cost.

More slope trimming will be part of summer work operations. The trimming allows skiing to commence when snowfall is on the low side. It’s part of an overall low-snow strategy that includes loading ramps that need only an inch of snow for lifts to operate and construction of snow fences to help keep snow from blowing away.

Over the last five years, snowfall totals have not reached the historical average of 265 inches per year. Totals include: 2017-18, 169 inches; 2018-19, 257 inches; 2019-20, 164 inches; 2020-21, 171 inches; and this season’s 183 inches.

Ticket prices for a weekend or holiday visit were increased from $55 to $64 per day to help cover the rising costs. The ski area has increased the prices of annual passes for next season. An adult pass is available during the spring sale this month for $399, a $50 increase over last season.

Mt. Ashland is a nonprofit owned and operated by the Mt. Ashland Association under a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service. For details, visit mtashland.com.

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