Short on skiers, not snow

March 30, 2005 11:00 pm

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Maybe Rick Pignone should have made some snowballs and started heaving them.

A couple of slushballs to the chest might have convinced more skiers and snowboarders than his words did.

All through March Pignone, who manages Ski Anthony Lakes, has told his snow story, and all through March almost no one has believed him.

He almost gave up.

But now, with a barrage of recent blizzards to corroborate his claims, Pignone hopes his oft-told tale about great snow conditions at the resort 34 miles northwest of Baker City finally will ring true in the ears of skiers and snowboarders.

Pignone said his newfound optimism persuaded him — perhaps against his better business judgment — to run the chairlift at Ski Anthony Lakes the next two weekends, April 2, 3, 9 and 10.

So few skiers showed up during March that Pignone had considered closing the resort for the season.

Skier visits for the month totaled 2,082 — almost exactly half as many as the 4,149 visits in March 2004, Pignone said.

Ski Anthony Lakes was closed on five days this March that were scheduled as open days, and the reason wasn't lack of snow, but lack of skiers and snowboarders, Pignone said.

"We were going to pull the plug" and end the season, he said.

But since March 16 storms have slathered the slopes at Ski Anthony Lakes with 30 inches of snow, Pignone said.

The month's total before that day?

Zero.

And the new snow is the dry, fluffy powder for which the resort is renowned, but which has been scarce for much of the season, Pignone said.

Despite the dearth of snow — Ski Anthony has recorded 126 inches since November, half of last season's total — Pignone said skiing conditions have stayed decent throughout.

"But absolutely no one would believe there was snow up here," he said.

More persuasive than his words, apparently, were the newspaper photos and video scenes on Portland TV stations showing lakes of meltwater in parking lots at ski areas on Mount Hood.

"People got that into their minds," Pignone said.

He said the lack of snow elsewhere in Oregon, and in Washington and Idaho, actually benefited Ski Anthony Lakes for much of the season because skiers who normally patronize other resorts instead drove here.

But Pignone said the out-of-state skiers didn't come close to making up for the loss of local skiers, who seemed more inclined to stay home than sample Ski Anthony's groomed, but decided not powdery, runs.

"Our local skiers really enjoy powder skiing, and we haven't had a lot of that recently," he said.

But Ski Anthony has powder now, and Pignone said he hopes local skiers and boarders haven't pushed their boots to the back of the closet.

"We're staying open for you," he said. "One side of me says this is a very poor business decision, but with all this new snow I just didn't have the heart (to close for the season).

"And I have an obligation to my season-pass holders. I'm hoping the public will come back. I hope I'm not wrong."

During the next two weekends Ski Anthony's Rock Garden chairlift will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Wonder Carpet, which whisks beginning skiers up the gentle hill near the lodge, will be available for lessons only.

Ski Anthony has scheduled several activities and events for the season's final weekend, Saturday, April 9 and Sunday, April 10.

The annual Snow Rodeo is set for April 9.

The competition includes a couple of events that at least sound like parts of a traditional rodeo — barrel racing and steer roping.

Except rodeos don't usually take place on snow, and the cowboys don't usually compete on skis or snowboards.

Other scheduled events:

Cowboy Snow Golf Tournament

The tournament is open to as many as five teams, with four golfers per team, first-come first-served.

Entry fee is $5 per person (all other Snow Rodeo events are free).

Ski Anthony supplies rubber golf balls.

Golfers can tee off with any instrument they choose, but all successive shots must be made with an actual golf club.

Cowboy Downhill Race

The event starts after the chairlift closes at 4 p.m.

Racers start by sprinting 50 feet to the starting line, where they step into their skis or snowboard.

Then they race to the bottom of the mountain, picking any route they want.

The first person to cross the finish line wins.

Separate from the Snow Rodeo Saturday is the season's second Snowmobile Drag Races.

Racers must attend a meeting at 11 a.m., and they must wear helmets while racing.

There are three classes: stock, limited and modified.

Entry fee is $25 in advance, or $40 on race day. For more information or to register, call Harmon Racing at 541/663-0567, or Jerry Krieg at 856-3277, extension 12.

The Hell Hounds music group will perform at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in the Starbottle Saloon.

Sunday, April 10 — Free Skiing

April 10, the final day of the season, is Ski Anthony's annual customer appreciation day, with free lift tickets for all skiers and boarders.

Resort officials are asking visitors that day to donate items for Community Connection's food banks in Baker City and La Grande.