But after 1972 the boom slacked off, the beginning of the end had occurred. The last truly major area—Mary Jane, 70 miles west of Denver—opened in 1975. Between 1973 and 1980 an average of only eight new areas have started up in the U.S. each year. This season there are but three. Beaver Creek is one—the one, really. The other two are comparative anthills: Ski Starlite in southern Indiana not far from that well-known winter-sports paradise, Lewisburg, Ky., and Ski Scaley in western North Carolina.
Now people in the ski business are quick—very quick—to say that growth in their industry hasn't been completely snowed under. They claim that the number of skiers and ski dollars continues to increase at a rate of close to 10% a year. But the pattern of prosperity hasn't been uninterrupted. There have been some killing seasons indeed.
There were a few bizarre winters in the '70s that left either the East or the West or both lacking the one commodity without which there is no point for a skier to get up in the morning—snow. During these years of brown disaster, ski-area operators prayed, complained,' tried to get along exclusively on expensive man-made snow, filed for bankruptcy, changed their religion and prayed some more. In the season of 1976-77, the worst of these winter droughts, almost no snow fell in either the East or the West until March. Sun Valley had to hold the World Cup ski races on an entire run of man-made snow. Most areas shut down weeks before they ordinarily would have, and ski-area industry profits fell 20% between 1975 and 1977.
Then, in the winter of 1977-78, the U.S. was blessed with blizzards, and ski areas racked up their highest average profits ever. As the Ski Areas Association's Conniff says, "The ski business is just as vulnerable and volatile as agriculture. We are totally dependent on the weather—over which we have no control at all. You never know. The vintage year it was perfect from Maine to Oregon, but last season it was excellent in some areas in the West, a disaster in some in the East. It's totally unpredictable."
But it isn't just the weather that lends a boom-or-bust air to the ski business. The industry is also a potential victim of the energy crisis. In 1974, a massive shortage of gasoline resulted in long lines at service stations and short lines at ski lifts, particularly at those belonging to the more remote resorts. "What happens in the Middle East is critical to our industry," says Conniff. "A gasoline shortage could practically snuff us out. Skiers rely on the automobile. There's no mass transit to most resorts. I think that if there's a supply of gasoline—no matter what the cost—skiers will go skiing. But if the time comes when there's no gas, we're in big trouble."
So there the business dangles, caught between the two most unpredictable and uncontrollable forces in the world: the weather and Middle East politics.
Still, the riskiness of it all isn't the main reason that we have come to a relatively static period in the growth of ski resorts. The primary problem is one of money and time. About the money: to create a ski mountain, be it on the scale of Sun Valley or Ski Starlite, the costs are astronomical. Jim Branch, a ski-area design consultant and president of Sno-Engineering in Franconia, N.H., estimates that it costs $3,500 per acre to prepare a new trail (Beaver Creek has 450 acres in trails for its premier season). Branch says you cannot install a new lift line for less than $100 per linear foot (Beaver Creek has 26,287 linear feet of lifts), and he guesses that the installation of a trustworthy snowmaking system will run from $10,000 to $20,000 an acre.
About money and time: millions will be tied up for years before an area earns a dime of ski revenue. From the moment the land is purchased until the first skier buys a lift ticket, half a dozen violent economic cycles might occur—from high interest rates to low, from massive inflation to modest and back to massive, from recession to boom. And during all that, the money invested in a ski mountain is doing about as much good as if it were stuck in a mattress. It's not a situation that your average gimlet-eyed banker is eager to involve himself with. Beaver Creek went through years of all this and, amazingly, succeeded anyway.
Bob Parker, the senior vice-president of Vail Associates, is a lanky, bearded man who was in the 10th Mountain Division and, along with Pete Seibert, another 10th Mountain man, was for all practical purposes the creator of the Vail ski area. Seibert is no longer at Vail, having departed four years ago after a series of management disagreements; he now runs a small operation in Utah called Snow Basin. Parker remains at Vail, and most observers give him the credit for having wrought the success of Beaver Creek. Parker's expertise lies in public relations and marketing, not technical mountain-making, which was Seibert's specialty, and therein lies the truth of how one must proceed in creating a ski resort these days: the science of persuasion—not engineering and finance—is the essence of the game.
Before selecting the site at Vail, which opened in 1962, Seibert and his cohorts had searched the mountains from Canada to Mexico for several years, looking for a suitable place to build a dream ski area. As Parker puts it, "Damned few mountains in the Rockies have skiable terrain and developable real estate at the bottom. Vail did. But so did Beaver Creek, and Pete liked it better."