Arizona skiers and riders got more bad news this month, when Sunrise Park Resort suspended season ticket sales and said that only one of its three mountains would likely open this season.
The tribal council of the White Mountain Apache, which owns the resort, also canceled its decade-old free junior pass promotion at the 600-acre resort. Tribal officials have refused to comment further on what the future holds for the state's largest ski area.
"That's the latest we have," said tribal attorney Bob Palmer, referring to a Sept. 16 press release. "There has been no further discussion by the tribal council."
The Sunrise announcement leaves Arizona skiers and riders with fewer options for the upcoming season. The owners of Arizona Snowbowl failed this fall in its attempt to develop snowmaking capacity at the Flagstaff mountain.
In the Sunrise press release, the White Mountain Apache tribe blamed "tough economic times" for the changes at the 40-year-old ski area on the eastern Arizona reservation. Tribe officials said that ticket prices will be adjusted before opening day. Repeated calls and e-mails by OnTheSnow to the tribal headquarters and Sunrise Park Resort have not been answered.
"Sunrise is going to focus all efforts and resources opening one of its three mountains in early December and is uncertain if the remaining two peaks will open," the press release said, referring to main mountain Sunrise Peak.
While having limited terrain open at the start of a ski season is not unusual, the unexpected cancelation of season ticket sales and a popular promotion has locals perplexed.
"We're all puzzled right now," said Tamara Farris-Sakellar, co-owner of White Mountain Lodge in Greer. "It seems it would only hurt their business with only one mountain."
Farris-Sakellar said last season was the best they had had since she and her husband bought the lodge nine years ago.
Other locals appear to be taking a wait-and-see attitude about the news, noting that uncertainty and secrecy have been the hallmarks of Sunrise Park since it opened in 1969. Bob Durocher, a native of the area and owner of Skier's Edge shop in Pinetop-Lakeside, told OnTheSnow that prior to 1969 the town "for the most part closed for the winter.
"If the ski area goes away and past history repeats itself, that's your impact," he said.
Pinetop-Lakeside Chamber of Commerce's Beverly Stept said any pullbacks at Sunrise would have a "tremendous impact" on the towns' economy.
"I'd say one-third of our income during the ski season comes from Sunrise," she said. "There are about 40 businesses in town that depend upon it."
Phoenix and Tucson provide most of the skiers and riders who come to Sunrise. No annual skier-days statistics are made public, but the National Ski Areas Association reports that Arizona logged 430,508 visits in the 2009-10 season, the vast majority at either Sunrise or Arizona Snowbowl. Mount Lemmon near Tucson and Elk Ridge in Williams also offer small-scale skiing in the state.
John Henson, of Alpine Ski Club in Phoenix, told OnTheSnow.com that the 2009-2010 was a strong year for his company. Alpine Ski Club runs regular weekend bus trips to Sunrise during the winter.
"They seem to go through turmoil every year," said Henson. "Things are fluid right now and, from what we hear from employee meetings, nothing seems to be certain."
The long-running controversy over making artificial snow at Arizona Snowbowl continues without resolution.
A recent effort to switch from treated wastewater to fresh water failed, and another lawsuit opposing snowmaking has been filed in federal court. Therefore, like they have since 2002, owners Arizona Snowbowl Limited Partners will have to rely again on natural snowfall on its 140 acres of slopes and trails.
According to the Arizona Daily Sun, the ski area had 114 days of operation from 1980 to '95, but only 76 from 1995 to the present. The worst season came in 2001-2002 when the lifts ran only four days.