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Sandia Ski Area up and running

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Sunshine brightens the day as snowboarders and skiers make their way down the Sandia Peak Ski Area slopes on Saturday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Sunshine brightens the day as snowboarders and skiers make their way down the Sandia Peak Ski Area slopes on Saturday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Sandia Peak is known for its off and on snow conditions, but this month the weather gods conspired to bring the ideal mix of cold and moisture that allowed lifts at the Albuquerque-area ski resort to start running on Friday – one of its earliest openings in memory.

Saturday morning saw the upper parking lot at near capacity by 10 a.m. as skiers and snowboarders of all ages took advantage of the 24-inch base of healthy looking snow.

A snowboarder catches air at Sandia Peak Ski Area on Saturday. Recent snowfalls, cold temperatures and no wind created an ideal ground covering at the site, allowing it open on Friday. "Everything just fell right into place," said snow maintenance manager Steve Gallegos. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

A snowboarder catches air at Sandia Peak Ski Area on Saturday. Recent snowfalls, cold temperatures and no wind created an ideal ground covering at the site, allowing it open on Friday. “Everything just fell right into place,” said snow maintenance manager Steve Gallegos. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s one of the earliest openings, with really good snow,” said Sandia Peak Ski & Tramway spokeswoman Debi Owen. “Last year, we only had the beginners hill open, so everything this year is a bonus compared to that.”

Several inches of snowfalls in recent weeks, temperatures in the single digits and no accompanying wind created an ideal ground covering, said snow maintenance manager Steve Gallegos.

“Everything just fell right into place,” Gallegos said

He and his experienced ground crews added to it, making snow using “fan guns” that blow water that freezes as it travels through the air.

Giant machines then compress each new layer and rough up the surface so it bonds with the snow beneath. Gallegos compared it to building up layers of Bondo body filler on a damaged car.

Then, like accomplished chefs, Gallegos’ team skied on the snow to test its ability to withstand rigorous treatment by winter sports enthusiasts.

“You’ve got to feel how it grips, how it turns. It’s like cooking food,” Gallegos said.

Similar weather conditions have enabled lifts to start running at Angel Fire, Taos, Red River, Sipapu, Santa Fe and Ski Apache.

‘Feast or famine’

Sandia has been open annually with few exceptions since its founding as a ski resort in 1937. In the 1980s and 1990s, Gallegos said, it regularly received snow falls of 30 inches to more than 50 inches. But inconsistent snow levels in recent years have hampered Sandia’s ability to fully open.

“It’s feast or famine,” said assistant area manager Paul Johnson.

Drought prevented the resort from opening one winter in the early 2000s. By contrast, in the winter of 2011-2012, it had unusually heavy snow falls early on and, from Dec. 19, 2011, to Jan. 5, 2012, Sandia had the most snow of any resort in the United States, Gallegos said.

A skier cruises down the mountain at Sandia Peak Ski Area, which opened on Friday. Ski lifts are also running at Angle Fire, Taos, Red River, Sipapu, Santa Fe and Ski Apache. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

A skier cruises down the mountain at Sandia Peak Ski Area, which opened on Friday. Ski lifts are also running at Angle Fire, Taos, Red River, Sipapu, Santa Fe and Ski Apache. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“There was not a ski area in Alaska that had more snow. That was our claim to fame,” he said.

Then last season another dearth of snow meant it could only open the novice area close to the ski lodge.

After last year, Gallegos believes local enthusiasts are eager to return to Sandia.

“Heck, yeah,” said Albuquerque snowboarder John Cano, who was waiting among a cluster of skiers and snowboarders near Lift 1.

Nearby, the skiing family of Geoff and Kate Klise and their children Sonia, 4, and Ian, 7, were glad to be skiing locally. They’d already been to resorts in southwestern Colorado. Saturday was their first day this season in New Mexico.

“We normally don’t get to start until after New Year’s,” Geoff Klise said.

Oklahoma transplant Bojan Kalajdzic had skied at Sandia before he moved to Albuquerque last year and is planning on being a regular this year. He has already bought a frequent skier pass that qualifies him for a discount on lift tickets.

“It’s convenient and great value if you ski a lot,” Kalajdzic said.

Sunshine brightens the day as snowboarders and skiers make their way down the Sandia Peak Ski Area slopes on Saturday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Sunshine brightens the day as snowboarders and skiers make their way down the Sandia Peak Ski Area slopes on Saturday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

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