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Skiers head up on the Sonnet lift Dec. 6, the opening day of Mt. Ashland Ski Area's 2018-19 season. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune

Low snow? No problem

ASHLAND — Averaging more than 1,000 skiers and riders per day, Mt. Ashland Ski Area has seen nearly half a normal season’s traffic in its first month.

Through Jan. 14, more than 32,000 snow lovers had enjoyed runs. The annual average is 70,000.

“It’s been very busy for both the ski school and the rentals,” said ski area General Manager Hiram Towle. “That shows me we have more and more people wanting to enter the sport and become skiers and riders for life.”

Last ski season Mt. Ashland didn’t open until Jan. 29 and drew only 35,586 skiers during the 46 days it was open. In 2016-17, the ski area’s last full year, Mt. Ashland had 80,849 patrons over 90 days.

Revenues have been good and will be used for operations, maintenance and to add to the area’s rainy-day fund, Towle said. Despite a short season last year, the area held on to all of its $800,000 reserve. In 2013-14, the area didn’t open at all but took out a low-cost federal loan to cover expenses.

Christmas Day attendance amazed Towle, he said. There were 1,600 visitors, compared with 800 on Christmas Day 2015, the last time it was open on the holiday. The area was open continuously from Dec. 21 to Jan. 7, except for a Jan. 5 wind closure, and drew 21,000 visitors during the holiday period. January attendance through Monday, Jan. 14, was 12,000.

Skiing started Friday, Dec. 7, a day ahead of schedule. The ski area had wind closures Dec. 14, 16 and 20 before the holiday period.

Snowfall for the season so far has been 78 inches compared to an annual average of 265. Last year’s season total was 173 inches, but much of that came in March. In 2016-17, the area received 368 inches.

Mother Nature has played a large part in helping the area work with the low snowfall, but snow fences, trimming of brush on runs and wood ramps to get skiers onto lifts have helped, said Towle.

“Our efforts really helped with our early opening,” he said. “It’s the least amount I have been able to open the area with. That I would attribute to some of the low-snow preparations.”

The area’s website showed 44 inches on the lower mountain and 41 inches on the summit Monday.

More than 1,000 enthusiasts used the free, hourly bus service during the holidays compared to 1,560 who used a less frequent service during all of 2016-17.

The bus leaves from Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites on the hour from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. A second bus returns from Mt. Ashland from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Service is now on weekends and holidays. The city of Ashland, through its Economic Development, Cultural, Tourism and Sustainability Grant program, supports the service with a grant of $8,250. Mt. Ashland managers estimate that the free service has offset more than 35,000 pounds of CO2 emissions over its first 16 days of operation. It’s also drumming up interest in the ski area by folks who don’t normally visit, they say.

Paul Hasselquist of Trinidad, California, said the availability of the bus led him to choose Ashland Hills for his family’s accommodations.

“I would do it again,” Hasselquist said Sunday on the mountain. His wife and daughter had a volleyball tournament in Medford Saturday, but he came to the mountain with a son and an exchange student on the shuttle. The whole family rode the shuttle Sunday.

The service also meant the family only needed to bring one vehicle for the trip.

“I can set my watch by the shuttle,” said Cyrus Ogle, an Ashland resident and frequent shuttle rider.

The ski area will continue working to make low-snow seasons more skiable.

A Local Mountain Fund capital campaign drive has raised over $100,000 since it started in late October. That amount has been matched 50 percent by the Karen and Sid DeBoer Foundation. The drive will continue work on low-snow projects such as fencing, ramps and slope trimming and fund improvement to the lodge.

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

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