The 2011-2012 ski year had been shaping up to be one of the most stubborn on record ... and then last week happened. Sweet Mother Nature worked her magic and loosed the floodgates on the Central Idaho mountains. Finally.
For those of you wondering what's cracking up north, here's a peek at why the pilgrimage to Valley County will boast some of the best winter recreational offerings for the rest of the season. Over the New Year holiday and again last week, BW headed north to check in with the Valley County resorts and operators to see how the less-than-optimal conditions had affected them. Here's what we found.
In addition to miserly dumpings in the early season, Tamarack had to weather an unusual operational structure in recent years that subtly imparts a "when the going gets tough, the tough get going" vibe with patrons.
Uncertainty and instability had been the modus operandi for the newest ski resort in America up until last season. Since its reopening in 2010 by a stalwart and determined group from the Tamarack homeowners association, the resort has retooled and re-themed itself as more of a locals' spot. While the days of extravagance are long gone, Tamarack still draws a pretty robust crowd, and its offerings are perhaps even better than in flashier times.
Tim Flaherty, Tamarack Municipal Association director, is proud of what the homeowners have been able to do and thinks the resort is on solid footing for a sustainable future and a good 2012 to boot.
"We were the only resort open in the west-central mountains for the first part of the year, which has put us about 16 percent ahead of where we were at this time last year," said Flaherty.
Tamarack has a state-of-the-art snow-making system that allowed it to get a jump-start on the season. When BW was there in late December, it was raining throughout much of Valley County, but Tamarack had surprisingly good coverage. Since then, more than 4 feet of fresh snow have turned bony groomers into steep and deep powder shots. All runs off the summit have nice drier snow, making for excellent skiing top to bottom.
Tamarack's leaner but more efficient Thursday-Sunday operation has been gussied up since last year's inaugural reopening--including weekend day-care service, a new ski rental fleet, a snow accumulation camera on the website so patrons can see how much untouched snow blankets the mountain between Sunday and Wednesday, a streamlined lift ticket sales upgrade, and expanded groomed Nordic skiing.
According to Flaherty, it cost a little more money to get going this year, but Tamarack's "we don't like lines" philosophy is better than ever. Consequently, ticket prices are up slightly for 2012.
Brundage Mountain Resort
Just north of Tamarack, Brundage Mountain Resort had just barely opened for business for our late December visit. Not having the same snow-making equipment as Tamarack or Sun Valley left Brundage a little behind the curve for an expedited opening date, but the resort's surge of more than 40 inches has set it up for an excellent mid-to-late season.
The rainy, sloppy early season conditions have given way to powder, powder and more powder. We skied Brundage recently and the conditions were phenomenal: powder top to bottom with a constant soft layer over limited groomed runs.
April Russell, Brundage communications director, is excited for the resort's 50th season, despite the late start.
"We were extremely happy with the turnout on opening day. ... About 2,000 people came up to the mountain," said Russell.
Brundage should see big numbers over the next few weekends as well, as Central Idaho readies for the McCall Winter Carnival Jan. 27-Feb. 5--now with plenty of snow.
Like Tamarack, Brundage has also been improving its operation, including the expansion of the upper lodge, the renovation of Smoky's Bar and Grill, and the addition of a new family friendly wing at the resort. Brundage has added two new grooming cats this year to ensure that its expanded terrain and two recently added chair lifts are ready to ride.
Little Ski Hill
McCall's super basic but super awesome Little Ski Hill is the most convenient and certainly the most "local" of Valley County's resorts. Known for its after school programs, fully lit terrain park and ridiculously affordable ($13 for adults) prices, LSH offers a family friendly alternative for those looking to make some turns.
This 405-vertical-foot resort is serviced by an old school T-bar, and offers a wide variety of educational programs to get folks learned-up on having safe winter fun.
This little gem also hosts high-flying regional skier/boarder cross events throughout the season and has recently expanded the adjacent Little Bear Basin with 30km of groomed cross-country trails.
If you aren't feeling the resort scene, then Valley County also boasts some of the best backcountry skiing in the region. McCall-based Payette Powder Guides takes guests out to some of the best stashes in the area for an all-inclusive experience for people looking to get away. Snowmobile and touring trips are available, as are avalanche training and rescue classes for those looking to learn the tools needed to go it alone. PPG offers yurt-based touring adventures in the Lick Creek area, where the snow pack tends to be healthier than in many other areas in Valley County.
"We're getting dumped on," wrote PPG's Chuck Rea. "The Lick Creek area received well over a foot of new snow on just Wednesday, [Jan. 18]." That brings the snow depth to more than 6 feet in the PPG neck of the woods.
Dismal beginnings aside, the slopes are looking decent to great for the rest of this season. Bogus Basin is open, the Foothills are wearing their January leisure suit, and that mountain bike can finally be put away for at least the next few months.