Recap of the winter that almost wasn't

The winter that's ending won't go down as the best season in Mount Ashland's 45-year history, but it was far from the worst.

Snow was sparse through January, and dollars were scarce all winter as the national recession deepened and Oregon sank into double-digit unemployment. Visitor count for the season that could end this weekend (more on this below) is likely to be down about 15 percent from last winter, said Kim Clark, general manager.

"When I look at how (visitor) numbers are in other parts of the state, we're doing pretty well," Clark said earlier this week, noting that visitor numbers across Oregon were down about 50 percent at the end of January.

Mount Ashland tallied about 90,000 visitors during the winter of 2007-08.

Scott Kaden, of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, estimated that ski area visits across the region could drop 15 to 20 percent from the previous winter, which saw record-high attendance. Kaden said ample snow in February and March helped turn the winter around, but the final tally will depend on how much snow falls in April.

Mount Ashland's lack of early-season snow forced closure of the popular Dream run during the first part of the season, and big storms seemed determined to bypass Southern Oregon all winter long. The ski area didn't accumulate 100 inches of snow until March 16.

"We never really got a pounding," Clark observed. "Sometimes we have 100 inches by January, or even December."

The first month of 2009, dubbed "June-uary" by the Mount Ashland crew, was particularly disappointing, with just 14 inches of snow for the entire month. That was a sharp contrast to January 2008, when 75 inches of snow fell during the first seven days of the month.

"We didn't have a lot of powder days," Clark said. "That's beyond our control."

Conditions improved in February and March, and skiers and boarders came back. Clark said revenue-wise, it's too early to predict how the ski area will finish the season.

Looking toward next winter, Clark said Mount Ashland will likely be closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but those closure days are still subject to change depending on how local schools arrange their calendars for the next school year.

Clark said Mount Ashland will offer some incentives next season to keep skiers and snowboarders coming back. Season pass prices have been reduced, and purchasers will have the opportunity to spread the payments over five months with no interest. Payments will be deducted automatically from a checking account, an arrangement that may well be the first of its kind for a ski area.

"It's extremely innovative," Clark said. "I don't know of any other ski areas doing this."

Season passes are marked down even further during the month of April. An adult unlimited pass will cost $349 during April, $449 during the fall and $549 during the season. A weekday pass (usable on weekends for an additional fee) will cost $199 during April. For full details ,see the ski area Web site: www.mtashland.com.

Clark said the price reductions, the spring sale and the deferred-payment plan were a response to the economic slump.

"In this economy everybody's looking at their leisure dollars," Clark said. "It's tax season, too."

While the season is scheduled to end Sunday, Mount Ashland is giving skiers and boarders a chance for one more weekend. If a total of 1,500 people show up on Saturday and Sunday combined, the lifts will roll again the following Saturday and Sunday, April 18-19.

The winter crew will have been sent home by then, so managers and staff will be staffing the chairlifts and cooking burgers.

"We enjoy it," Clark said. "We hope folks show up."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or bkettler@mailtribune.com.

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