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El Niño gives New Mexico skiing season a head start

[photoshelter-gallery g_id=”G0000SeQQ6LyEjRc” g_name=”Ski-Season-Coming-2015″ width=”600″ f_fullscreen=”t” bgtrans=”t” pho_credit=”iptc” twoup=”f” f_bbar=”t” f_bbarbig=”f” fsvis=”f” f_show_caption=”t” crop=”f” f_enable_embed_btn=”t” f_htmllinks=”t” f_l=”t” f_send_to_friend_btn=”f” f_show_slidenum=”t” f_topbar=”f” f_show_watermark=”t” img_title=”casc” linkdest=”c” trans=”xfade” target=”_self” tbs=”5000″ f_link=”t” f_smooth=”f” f_mtrx=”t” f_ap=”t” f_up=”f” height=”400″ btype=”old” bcolor=”#CCCCCC” ]PAJARITO MOUNTAIN – Tom Long stood at the bottom of the white and glistening peaks of Pajarito Mountain Resort on Tuesday, puffing on a cigar and taking in all the snow the mountain received the night before. You would have never guessed that this place was dry as a bone and had to be sold off fewer than two years ago.

A wet summer and recent El Niño storms provided enough precipitation for the resort to make snow for the first time in its history, and Long, the mountain manager, could not be happier.

“This makes my heart soar like a hawk because, this time last year, you could have played golf out here at the ski area,” Long said. “Having this early snow and the cold temperatures, water in the pond, being able to make snow, El Niño being forecast – all good signs. We’re enthusiastically optimistic.”

Workers install some of the 45 seats on a new quad lift at Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort earlier this week. The ski area, which prides itself on opening early, began operations last weekend. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Workers install some of the 45 seats on a new quad lift at Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort earlier this week. The ski area, which prides itself on opening early, began operations last weekend. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The mountain suspended operations on Jan. 12, 2014, due to drought, and the Los Alamos Ski Club, which owned the resort, transferred its assets to Los Alamos County. It was later purchased by James Coleman, who now owns Pajarito, Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort, Purgatory Resort in Durango, Colo., and the Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff.

The purchase, as well as a good helping of moisture, has given the mountain new life. “When you look at the situation we were in the past couple of years, this is like manna from heaven,” Long said. “This is a great start, but it bodes well for the entire season. My crystal ball is all full of snow, so I can’t really predict anything, so I’m hoping that it’s a good omen.”

Pajarito built its snowmaking system in late 2009, but it hasn’t been able to use it, because a 10-million-gallon reservoir at the bottom of the mountain was not filling up. And not being able to make snow might as well be a death sentence for ski resorts in the usually arid mountains of New Mexico.

“Snowmaking makes it possible for a lot of the ski areas in New Mexico to get open when they want to get open and maybe go a little later in the spring time,” said Tommy Long, Tom Long’s son and snowmaking manager at Pajarito. “Without snowmaking, most of the ski areas in New Mexico would really suffer.”

George Duke was one of several workers making snow at Pajarito Mountain Ski Area, above Los Alamos, on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

George Duke was one of several workers making snow at Pajarito Mountain Ski Area, above Los Alamos, on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

This year, Pajarito was able to pump about 9 million gallons of water from the reservoir, which is much more than the 7 million it needed.

All resorts in the area also received a generous helping of powder from an El Niño storm Monday night. Pajarito and Taos Ski Valley got 10 inches, Sipapu got 23 inches and Ski Santa Fe got a whopping 29 inches. Although the storm came before the start of the season, it will still help until everything shuts down in the spring.

“That 10 inches becomes the foundation for the rest of the season,” Tommy Long said. “When you get this type of snow storm, it really helps set you up for the rest of the year.”

Pajarito will open Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving, with the cafe opening at 8 a.m. and lifts running at 9 a.m. Before you hit Pajarito, you can swing by Sipapu, which started operations last Saturday.

Sipapu, which prides itself on being the first winter resort to open in the state each year, will have a new quad lift – the third new lift for the resort in the past five years – up and running this weekend. J.P. Bradley, Sipapu’s mountain manager of 14 years, said the new lift travels 330 vertical feet and he hopes “quite a few runs” will be open this weekend.

Diehard skiers and snowboarders can enjoy unlimited access to both Sipapu and Pajarito, as well as Purgatory and the Arizona Snowbowl for $899.

Purgatory, which is set to open Saturday, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with several festivities throughout the season. The resort also changed its name back to Purgatory after being called Durango Mountain Resort for the past 15 years.

Purgatory started making snow Oct. 23, which is the earliest the resort has done so in 20 years, according to communications director Kim Oyler. A new high-speed quad lift is also set to debut Dec. 19.

Jeremy Jordan, right, manager of the rental shop at Ski Santa Fe, holds an orientation meeting with new employes on his 42-member staff Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Jeremy Jordan, right, manager of the rental shop at Ski Santa Fe, holds an orientation meeting with new employes on his 42-member staff Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Santa Fe bus service

But if you don’t want to drive to Durango – or you don’t want to drive at all – the North Central Regional Transit District for the first time this year will provide a shuttle service from various locations in Santa Fe to Ski Santa Fe.

The service started Sept. 26 for people wanting to see the changing of the leaves, according to NCRTD public information officer Jim Nagle. Peak service will begin when Ski Santa Fe opens on Thanksgiving and will continue until the resort closes in April.

The “Blue Bus” will have three round trips Monday through Friday and seven round trips on the weekends. A one-way trip is $5, but Nagle said riders will receive a token for $5 off for several services at Ski Santa Fe.

Albuquerque patrons can ride the Rail Runner to the South Capitol station in Santa Fe and catch a shuttle to the ski area. Other spots to catch a bus are Fort Marcy and the 10,000 Waves spa on the way up to the ski area.

Ski Santa Fe has benefitted the most from recent storms, but Sandia Peak, which is under the same ownership, got six inches of snow earlier this week, well ahead of its scheduled Dec. 19 opening date.

“El Niño bodes great for skiing in New Mexico,” said Debi Owen, director of communication for Ski Santa Fe and Sandia Peak Ski. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but we don’t want to do anything to jinx it. The outlook is optimistic for Sandia. El Niño years are very good for Sandia Peak.”

Taos Ski Valley, reporting a 24-inch base, opens on Thanksgiving. Ski Apache near Ruidoso, reporting 15 inches while snow is being made, also says it will be start up on Turkey Day. Red River’s website says it will open for weekends and holidays starting Wednesday, with daily operations scheduled to start Dec. 11. That’s the same day that Angel Fire will open.

Ben Worstell, 18, of Santa Fe, does a backflip on a jump that he and friends constructed at Ski Santa Fe on Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Ben Worstell, 18, of Santa Fe, does a backflip on a jump that he and friends constructed at Ski Santa Fe on Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

‘What more could you ask for?’

A level of cautious optimism is only natural in a business that depends on gifts from the sky, but recent precipitation has given people reason to believe that this year is going to be special.

“If I had a crystal ball, I wouldn’t be doing this,” Bradley said. “I haven’t seen this kind of snow pack this early since I’ve been (at Sipapu). I’m optimistic and the season pass sales indicate that lots of people in the state are optimistic. You’re not in the ski industry if you’re not optimistic. If you’re not, you’re crazy to do this.”

But hopes for a good season are sky-high at Pajarito. After a few rough years, summer rain and winter snow has resurrected the once dry mountain.

“I’m going to say I’m very optimistic,” Tommy Long said. “We’re making snow, there’s snow on the ground – what more could you ask for?”

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