Are ski conditions too hairy? Try grooming

Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2008

We hear frequently from our users about grooming practices at Eaglecrest Ski Area - not personal grooming, no problem there - but about grooming the slopes. Some of our more advanced skiers would like to see a little less grooming. Some of our new skiers and intermediate skiers would like to see more grooming.

For the nonskiing readers of this column, grooming is the practice of conditioning the slopes, breaking up the ice and hard-packed snow, smoothing out the bumps, and churning the top layer of snow to leave a couple inches of soft, smooth, good-turning snow.

Eaglecrest has three grooming machines. Our newest machine is the Pisten Bully 300 winch cat, a high-performance cat with an overhead winch system that makes it possible to safely and effectively groom some of the steeper slopes at Eaglecrest. We also have a snow cat especially built to work in the terrain park. The Pisten Bully 200 has a blade and tiller with more flexibility to handle the features in the terrain park. Our third machine, a Pisten Bully 260, is older and a little tired but still usable as a front-line groomer. Each one of these cats costs more than $250,000 and requires a full summer's worth of maintenance by our skilled mechanic, Todd Hatfield, to function effectively throughout the winter.

For safety reasons, we groom only after-hours. Our grooming crew, Chauncey Sorenson and Travis Tucker, begin their shifts at about midnight and work through the night to prepare the slopes for the next day's skiers and boarders. Well-groomed slopes can really enhance the quality of the experience for many skiers. Poorly groomed slopes, not so much. A skilled cat driver is a real asset to a ski area, and with Chauncey and Travis along with their boss Jeff Brown, director of mountain operations, we've got three of the best anywhere.

At Eaglecrest, grooming is primarily about enhancing the experience for beginning and intermediate skiers. Diehard skiers and boarders will be on the mountain regardless of where and how we groom. Many of us prefer to be off the beaten path anyway, skiing the trees and the steeps. But many skiers prefer the smooth, predictable experience of skiing a nicely groomed run. We want to make sure these folks have plenty of terrain to ski, from top to bottom. Really, one of the great things about Eaglecrest is there is plenty of terrain for everyone.

On another subject, we also frequently hear questions about season pass and lift ticket prices. In fact, its that time of year again - budgeting time for Eaglecrest management and the board of directors. This is when we carefully examine our operating costs and revenues this season and build next year's budget. Last year we earned record revenues. This season is shaping up to be a strong revenue year as well.

Costs, however, have been increasing rapidly. Fuel costs are on the rise. The cost of insurance is up and labor costs in general are up. We have some control over labor costs, however, we know how important it is to offer fair and competitive compensation to attract and retain the best staff. That means occasional cost of living adjustments. We believe our investment in the management and staff at Eaglecrest pays dividends in terms of efficient, safe operations, and a high-quality experience for our users.

Our goal in budgeting at Eaglecrest is to see that operating revenues (from season passes, lift tickets, equipment rentals, food service, etc.) cover at least 70 percent of our total operating costs. We've been successful in sustaining that level of cost recovery for the last several years.

Some might say skiers and boarders should cover all the costs associated with operating Eaglecrest. If Juneau were a community of 60,000 people, rather than 30,000, that might be possible. However, if we were to raise season pass and lift ticket prices to the level necessary to cover all our costs, we would price many skiers and boarders out of the opportunity to enjoy Eaglecrest. The ski area would become a playground for only those who could afford a $700 season pass or a $50 daily lift ticket.

Eaglecrest's mission statement is clear. Our job is to provide affordable winter recreation opportunities to the residents of Juneau. We especially want Eaglecrest to be affordable for young people and families. The Juneau Assembly and most residents recognize the city's investment in Eaglecrest is good for keeping Juneau's youth active and healthy. Further, they recognize investments that enhance the quality of life in our community are good for the economy and good for local businesses, which struggle to attract and retain good employees in Juneau. Simply put, for thousands of Juneauites of all ages, Eaglecrest is a critical part of what's great about living in Juneau.

So, though final decisions on pricing won't be made until next fall, the board will be considering season pass price increases again next season, as we adjust for rising costs and maintain our policy of at least 70 percent cost recovery. Meantime, we'll be doing everything we can to control costs, keep Eaglecrest affordable for Juneau's skiers and boarders, and make Eaglecrest the best little ski area in the world.

Do you have questions or comments for the management or board of directors of Eaglecrest? Log on to and leave us a message.

• Jim Calvin is president of the Eaglecrest Board of Directors.

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