Groomers for Boomers
Tahoe ski resorts, which have long relied on marketing deep snow and steep slopes to vie for skier visits, are now also heralding their tamer sides – lazy groomers with perfectly manicured snow – to keep aging baby boomers coming back to the slopes.”Every year we participate in a Northern California phone survey, and over the past few years grooming has become increasingly more important to our customers,” said Nicole Belt, Northstar-at-Tahoe resort spokeswoman. “It ranks in the top five criteria that our guests look for in a ski vacation.”Demographics suggest the bottom line is behind the move: The percentage of skiers who are 45 or older – the baby boomers – climbed from 21 percent in 1997-98 to 31 percent last season, according to a survey done for the National Ski Areas Association.Truckee resident Norm Nicholls, who has been skiing Tahoe slopes since the 1960s, said the advancements in technology and grooming have kept many of his peers on their skis.”We call ourselves ‘super seniors’ and we are super because of the technology,” Nicholls said. “It’s made the sport more enjoyable.”In the 1960s, the idea of super seniors skiing heavily each winter was incomprehensible because of the rudimentary technology and the ungroomed runs, Nicholls said.
“You had to be athletic and you had to be balanced,” said Nicholls of his early skiing. “They basically did nothing to the snow.”Northstar-at-Tahoe has recognized the demand for more groomed snow and has made a commitment to manicure 70 percent of its runs nightly. To accomplish that, the resort added three Bombardier snowcats to its grooming fleet last season. The resort will also print daily maps this winter that indicate the freshly groomed runs so skiers and riders can find fresh corduroy.Sugar Bowl has taken a similar tack. “Seventy-five percent of the mountain is groomed consistently,” said Sugar Bowl spokeswoman Nikki Streegan.Located just minutes from Interstate 80, Sugar Bowl is often populated with weekenders from the Bay Area looking for sunshine and corduroy. Noting this, the resort recently purchased a new “winch cat” to manicure the steeper slopes on the mountain, Streegan said.”Weekend guests are that population of guests that are looking for fair weather and perfectly groomed runs,” she said.
Every major resort prides itself on a variety of ski runs – beginner, intermediate and expert, with most also offering “extreme” terrain that is both steep and potentially full of unmarked hazards like tree stumps and rocks.In the past, grooming usually applied largely to beginning and intermediate runs, with snow machines pulling wide metal “drags” that knocked down bumps and smoothed out irregularities in the slope. What’s left is often called corduroy because of the distinctive grooves left in the snow.But some resorts now routinely groom half an expert slope, offering the serious stuff on one side and an easy way down on the other. And the easy way down isn’t for the kids.”We are very aware of the importance of keeping this age group skiing,” said Christine Horvath, spokeswoman for Squaw Valley. “We have been extremely focused on the quality and quantity of our grooming, especially during the past two seasons.”Beyond the slopes themselves, the evolution of the shaped ski is a big factor in keeping boomers skiing, said Bill Jensen, chief operating officer for Vail Resort.
“Initiating a turn has never been easier – but the reality is that any ski, straight or shaped, performs best on straight and groomed surfaces,” he said.Fitness experts say boomers need to be careful, even on groomed slopes.”Many of the severe knee injuries occur on very forgiving, flat terrain that is well-groomed,” said Dr. Robert H. Johnson, a professor of musculoskeletal research at the University of Vermont and a specialist in skiing injuries.And boomers who want to leave the corduroy behind and shred like it’s 1965 can rest assured that the steep portions of Tahoe ski resorts will never be tamed.- The Associated Press contributed to this report.