‘It’s a disaster’

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Pajarito deals with no-show snow

By Bennett Horne



Tom Long is trying to make the best of a bad situation.


Actually, “bad” is putting it lightly.

“It’s a disaster,” he said. “Just a disaster.”

Long is the general manager of the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area and the disaster he’s speaking of is the area’s current moisture – or lack thereof – situation.

“Our normal snowfall here is about 150 to 160 inches and we’ve had 16 inches of natural snowfall this year. And six of that was this past week,” he said Sunday. “But since we started measuring snow in November we got 10 inches of snowfall. I mean it’s just a disaster.”

Even though last week’s snowfall brought more skiing enthusiasts to the Pajarito facility for the long weekend, they were only able to enjoy one of the 44 to 45 trails that lace the mountain when fully operational. 

While Pajarito does have the means to produce its own snow, a lack of runoff has dried up that option.

“We collect runoff from snow melt,” Long explained. “We have a 10-million gallon pond up on top. Since we didn’t have much runoff last year we were only able to capture a couple million gallons, so we’re only able to make a small section of snow.”

That small section was made in December.

“We opened December 16 with it and we’re still using that same snow,” he said, “with a little help from Mother Nature to whiten it up.”

If Mother Nature will cooperate, Long believes Pajarito can finish the current ski season without any hiccups.

“Mother Nature, that big gas ball in the sky, what is it going to do?” he asked. “Is it going to snow a little more? Are we going to have cold temperatures? We feel fairly confident we can get through the school programs, get those things done and wrapped up and get into March if it will keep snowing and stay cold. We’re hopeful. We’re trying to keep it going.”

The lack of snow produces a ripple effect that touches many areas across the landscape.

“It’s going to preclude a bad fire season, farmers’ runoff, rafters, fly fishermen, stream fisherman … they’re all going to suffer,” said Long. “Plus, it’s going to stress this forest, which has already had stress from fire and things like that. We’re just on pins and needles hoping we get some spring moisture.”

It also affects the local economy, not to mention individual bank accounts. For example, in a normal winter Pajarito employs approximately 150 workers. Right now that number is around 50.

But help may be on the way in the form of a mountain bike. Lots of mountain bikes.

“We have a fairly aggressive mountain bike program that we’re going to have this year,” said Long. “In the past three seasons we’ve operated about every other weekend for mountain biking and hiking. But this year we’re going to expand to every weekend for mountain biking.”

That plan includes mountain bike rentals and lessons, as well as mountain bike gear to be sold in the shop.

“Our new ownership is being very aggressive about this,” Long said. “We’ve got this beautiful facility here and there’s no sense in letting it lay fallow for the entire time while you’re waiting for winter to come.”

Pajarito provides a mix of trails for the mountain biking enthusiast, everything from a more relaxed cross-country ride to downhill runs for the thrill seekers.

“We have some cross country here, but most of your mountain biking now seems to be leaning toward free ride or downhill stuff,” Long said. “We take them up on the lift and they come down with their hair on fire.”

He said an effort is being made to develop more green trails as well as slower trails that are more appropriate for the beginner and for smaller kids.

“It’s all part of a grand scheme,” he said.

The mountain biking season will start in May, which will give Long and his staff time to do maintenance on the lifts and the trails.

Long hopes the bigger push into mountain biking, along with events like the 70th Skiesta Festival on March 17, will help keep Pajarito intertwined with Los Alamos.

“It helps keep you in the community of Los Alamos,” he said. “We do the main street concert and some beer and band things and by expanding to every weekend for mountain biking … these are events and things that help remind people that we’re here and we’re part of the community and we’re interested in the community.”