8,000+ skiers hit slopes this winter at Howelsen Hill’s Ski Free Sundays | SteamboatToday.com

8,000+ skiers hit slopes this winter at Howelsen Hill’s Ski Free Sundays

20-month-old Alice Pulford, followed by 19-month-old Gonzalo Gooding, ride up the Small Magic Carpet at Howelsen Hill Ski Area on Sunday. This year, more than 8,716 skiers and riders hit the slopes on Ski Free Sundays. (Photo by Eleanor C. Hasenbeck)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On Sunday, the magic carpets on Howelsen Hill slowed to a stop, and the chairlift stopped turning for the final time this winter. Closing out the season with one last Ski Free Sunday, Howelsen Hill Ski Area's alpine runs are closed to the public until the next season, though the Howelsen Hill Nordic Center will remain open a bit longer.

In the coming weeks, there are a few remaining Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club events on the hill. By late March, city crews will start scraping snow off of the historic ski hill in an attempt to prevent landslides.

By the numbers

Ski Free Sunday skiers and riders this winter: more than 8,716
Ski Free Sunday skiers last winter: 8,016 
Estimated number of times a single Poma platter climbs the hill on a Ski Free Sunday: 60 
Number of free Moutain Tap beers claimed with Ski Free Sunday lift tickets: more than 150
Number of staff hours donated by Ohana, Mountain Tap, Harvest Skis and the Morningside String Brand to Howelsen’s Sunday Funday fundraiser event: 92 hours
Money raised to support the Howelsen Hill Endowment Fund this year: $4,826 

On Ski Free Sundays, cross country skiers, alpine skiers and alpine snowboarders received free lift tickets. For the final Ski Free Sunday of the season, the city celebrated with free jump lessons from Winter Sports Club coaches and free hot dogs grilled up by Steamboat Springs City Council members.

In the city's fourth season hosting Ski Free Sundays, the program has grown in popularity and number of ski-for-free days offered. It kicked off in January 2016, with three free days attracting more than 900 skiers before the snow melted that year.

The 2018-2019 season had 15 free days, which attracted more than 8,716 skiers and riders, including a record-breaking day with 1,079 skiers on the hill on the Dec. 30, 2018, Ski Free Sunday.

"We never had a thousand people at Howelsen before Ski Free Sundays," said Howelsen Ski and Rodeo Complex Manager Brad Setter.

This year, the hill had more staff and more ski patrollers in place on Sundays to better serve beginner skiers.

"We really like being busy at Howelsen," he said. "My staff likes teaching people how to ride the Poma and help 'em out and try to facilitate a good time on the snow. We definitely enjoy getting folks on the snow, and it's definitely a different clientele than we have normally, being more of a training facility Tuesday through Friday."

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Skiing is not an inexpensive hobby. Even if a skier owns their equipment, there are repeating annual costs to keep that equipment in tune and get on the mountain at a resort.

As season pass prices at Steamboat Resort creep up, and daily walk-up ticket rates reached record highs this winter, Howelsen Hill, though a small ski area, is a mighty force in making the sport accessible.

"We don't have a pass to the big mountain, and this is how we go skiing with our family, so we love it," said Julie Bridgewater, typically a snowboarder, but with her three-year-old son Cal on Sunday, she was on skis. "We depend on it."

Howelsen is her home mountain for her family of four. Her six-year-old daughter mastered the Poma lift this season. They celebrated her son's third birthday with a party at Howelsen.

"We're getting a lot of folks skiing at the facility who would not otherwise be able to ski," Setter said. "We've got a lot of folks traveling here from Hayden and Craig. We've got some folks coming from as far as Leadville on a regular basis that might not otherwise have the opportunity to ski anywhere — that might be priced out of skiing. It's a very unique niche to be able to get people into the sport and give them an opportunity to learn how to ski without having to pay a lot of money, at least on lift tickets. We're pretty excited about that."

Andrew Fox, with son Wyatt on his back, skis down the bunny hill at Howelsen Hill on Sunday. (Photo by Eleanor C. Hasenbeck)

For 11 Ski Free Sundays this season, the city tracked whether the recipients of free lift tickets were in their first year of the sport. During those 11 days, an average of 14 percent of the skiers and riders heading up the hill were in their first year of learning to ski or snowboard, according to data provided to the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

On Sunday, a family from Missouri clomped over to the hill in snowboard boots, determined to figure out how to slide downhill strapped to a piece of wood and fiberglass for the first time ever.

For the most part, Ski Free Sunday attracts residents of Northwest Colorado, but this year, depending on the weekend, about 30 percent of Ski Free Sunday skiers were from out of state or other areas of the state.

Last year, 43 percent of Ski Free Sunday skiers were from Steamboat, and 60 percent were from Routt County. Three percent were from Craig, 19 percent were from elsewhere in Colorado, 17 percent from out of state and 1 percent were from another country. Final data was not available about this year's attendance.

Notably, there were bumps in the number of out-of-towners on Howelsen Hill during the dates in which the Ikon Base Pass had blackout dates at Steamboat. There were more visitors than locals on the hill on Dec. 30, and Jan. 20. Setter guessed these were Front Range skiers who didn't want to head back through the Eisenhower Tunnel without skiing.

Setter said the city is working to build a more festive atmosphere at Howelsen, with more picnic tables and benches. If the program continues next year, he said the city will seek sponsors.

City Council will consider whether to continue the program, likely at one of its spring meetings. In an informal poll of the four council members handing out free hot dogs on Howelsen's closing day, council members indicated support for the program in some form.

"I would hope that we would continue to do it," Council Member Robin Crossan said. "Whether we can expand it or not, I don't know, but I would surely hope that we can continue to do what we're doing at the least."

Bill Manley helps Cody Manley into a ski glove Sunday at Howelsen Hill.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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