Ed Reitz first experienced the thrill of the slopes when he learned to ski in Winter Park, Colo., with the YMCA as a sophomore at Shawnee Mission East High School.
Reitz returned to Winter Park in his junior and senior years at East, and he’s been skiing ever since.
For the past 25 years, though, the retired Overland Park man has kept an eye on the slopes a lot closer to home as a volunteer ski patroller at Snow Creek near Weston, the Kansas City area’s only ski resort.
Reitz has been a member of the National Ski Patrol for 45 years, and he’s skied at some other bigger-name destinations over the years, including Grand Targhee Resort, in Alta, Wyo.
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But Snow Creek is “a pretty doggone good place to learn” if you live in the Kansas City area or within three or four hours of it, he said.
“You can learn how to ski packed snow — where they groom the slopes — very well at Snow Creek,” Reitz said. “If you don’t like it, you can pack up and go back home.”
In a metropolitan area that received less than 4 inches of snowfall in the winter of 2011-12 and averaged 18.8 inches from 1981 through 2010, Snow Creek must make most of its own snow. But the topography on these 40 acres, in the heart of the Midwestern flatlands, contains 11 trails in a 300-foot vertical drop and a tubing run in a 100-foot drop.
“There’s no replacement for real snow,” said veteran skier Tom Luke of Parkville, “but they do a real good job of grooming the trails.”
Snow Creek, about 6 miles north of Weston, has been in business since 1986.
The resort was started by Timothy Boyd and is one of 12 resorts owned and operated by Peak Resorts Inc., based in Wildwood, Mo. The company, which went public Nov. 21, also operates a 13th resort that it doesn’t own. Most Peak Resorts properties are in the Northeast and the Midwest.
Snow Creek employs about 300 people during the ski season and eight in the off season. Its customers come from throughout the Midwest, and at least as far away as Florida and Texas, spokesman Darin Pond said. Last year, he said, Snow Creek had nearly 80,000 skier visits.
Young and old, they come.
“On a typical day you’ll see anybody from 3 years old to 80,” he said. “Mainly families are here. We get church groups, Boy Scouts and other youth and adult groups.”
Harold Nelson, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Hutchinson, Kan., showed up on New Year’s Eve — opening day for Snow Creek — with 18 youngsters from his church. It was the first time there for all of them.
“We got a grand tour yesterday,” said Nelson, who skied in Colorado 10 to 15 years ago. “It’s a pretty neat place.”
Lisa Elsener of Prairie Village was at Snow Creek on opening day. She has taken part in Special Olympics at Snow Creek for more than 10 years, and she won the 2014 most inspirational athlete award at the John L. Cassidy Special Olympics Heartland Winter Games.
She’s skied in Keystone, Colo., and she didn’t sugar-coat that she prefers the nature-made snow of the Rockies while acknowledging the can’t-be-beat location of Snow Creek.
“I’d say this is fake snow, and I like skiing on real snow,” Elsener said. “This one’s crystal kind of snow, and the real snow’s easier to ski on. I’m an intermediate. But I think it’s cool that they built one here, because normally you’d go to Colorado to ski.”
Elsener’s “abilities as an ice skater and skier, but also her enthusiasm and attitude, and her support of other athletes” contributed to her having won the award, said Ann McElhenny, who serves on the event’s games-management team.
This year’s event ran last week and had more than 250 participants, up from about 50 in 1990, its first year, McElhenny said.
“The games bring such joy not only to the athletes but the volunteers as well,” she said. “They give the athletes a fabulous sports experience and self-confidence.”
During the winter season, Snow Creek’s patrons play on snow that averages 70 to 90 inches deep. Most of that is made by more than 70 “snow guns,” which typically crank out as much as 12 inches of snow in 24 hours when the temperature is right, Pond said.
“At 28 degrees or below, we can start making snow, depending on the dew point,” Pond said. “When the dew point is lower, you can make snow at temperatures a few degrees higher.”
Snow Creek typically opens the second weekend in December, Pond said, but this year, too-warm weather delayed the opening until New Year’s Eve.
Staffers started the snow guns and ran them sporadically at night starting Dec. 26. On opening day, the guns had been running 24 hours a day for three days.
The snow-making process starts when water is pumped from an aquifer under the nearby Missouri River and piped into the bigger of two ponds on Snow Creek’s grounds, Pond said.
The water is then gravity-fed from the bigger pond to the smaller one, and then pumped out to stationary snow guns and hydrants on the hills. Hoses are attached from the hydrants to mobile snow guns.
Each snow gun has nozzles in front that use compressed air and water to shoot out ice pellets “just like mother nature,” Pond said. A fan on the snow gun’s back helps disperse the pellets.
“Man-made snow is more dense, because each pellet stacks onto another pellet,” he said.
To maintain the slopes, workers operate three “snow cats” with tank treads and tillers to break up the surface snow. The vehicle’s weight compacts the surface, and a blade on the front levels it.
Slopes ice up when the temperature rises above freezing and then falls again. The icy surface is then tilled, “and it’s a good condition for skiing,” Pond said.
“Most people can’t tell the difference” between snow-gun snow and the real thing, he said, and “the vast majority of ski resorts make some of their snow.”
Chris Vittorino, a 24-year-old snowboarder, lives in Lee’s Summit. He started coming to Snow Creek about 10 years ago and worked on the park crew there for four years as a teenager, building jump rails on the snowboarding runs.
“It’s really about the atmosphere,” Vittorino said. “You get a bunch of friends to come out here. It’s not outrageously expensive, and you don’t have to drive eight hours.”
He also snowboards at Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain in Colorado.
“As long as you get consistent snow, it’s all right,” he said of Snow Creek’s snow quality. “When it melts, it melts from the bottom and makes snowboarding slower because of slush.”
Horticulturalists know that for plant-selection purposes, Kansas City was shifted into a warmer climate zone a few years back, but Pond said he’d seen no trend in the past several years of warmer weather significantly delaying opening dates.
Since the beginning, Snow Creek has stayed open for more than 70 days each season, and the average season is 82 days long, Pond said. It typically closes in the second week of March.
Patrons can hit the slopes day and night. Pond said that lighting for nighttime skiing, snowboarding and tubing covers Snow Creek’s entire terrain.
“It’s not super bright, because snow is white,” Pond said. “The lights are bright, but not so bright that they cause glare.”
Ski resorts like Snow Creek — those with mostly man-made snow — play a meaningful role, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, based in Lakewood, Colo. His group represents 325 alpine resorts, which account for more than 90 percent of the skier and snowboarder visits nationwide, according to its website.
“We have a number of members and are very aware of the ski areas in the Midwest, because they’re incredibly important to us,” Berry said.
“That’s where generation after generation learns to ski and snowboard. Snow Creek really is a very vibrant and exciting place. I’ve been there at least three times over the last decade.”
Solomon Shields and Bailey McAuley snowboarded together on opening day. They’re both 17 and attend Olathe Northwest High School. McAuley was a newbie at Snow Creek; Shields started last year.
“It’s a good place to practice,” Shields said. “Nice terrain park.”
“We got new boards this year,” McAuley said, “and it’s a good place to feel your board and get used to it.”
Snow Creek proved to be a learning laboratory for Tom Luke’s son, Alec. He and Alec, now 12, took a break from the snow, warmed up and grabbed a bite in the lodge on opening day. Luke grew up in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, moved to Kansas City in 1992 and tried Snow Creek for the first time in 1995. He skis there every season.
“When Alec was little, we came here every weekend, both days,” Luke said. “This is smaller (than big-name resorts), but it’s a great spot to bring your family and learn to ski.”
Alec started skiing at age 3.
“There’s a lot of great people and a lot of great friends I have who are here, and we ski together,” he said.
Skiers and snowboarders typically start at a place that’s close to home and affordable, Berry said.
“These places are vital to the industry,” he said. “Big resorts can be very expensive, but tens if not hundreds of thousands ski locally.”
A one-day lift ticket at Vail, Colo., for example, costs $145 for adults, $100 for children and $135 for seniors, according to vail.com. At Snow Creek, the cost is $44 for adults, $29 for youths, $5 for seniors and free for children 6 and younger.
A fair number of Sitzmark Sports’ customers take advantage of Snow Creek’s proximity and more affordable prices, said Steve Brace, owner of the Overland Park ski outfitter.
“I think there are people that go to Snow Creek because it is close and convenient, and they go up there and warm up and get ready to go to Colorado,” Brace said. “When you’re trying to figure out what to do with the kids on the weekend, going to Snow Creek is a wonderful thing to do.”
Dianne and Don Park, a retired couple who live in Lansing, have a favorite place to ski: Flims, Switzerland.
“You’d think you’d died and gone to heaven,” Don Park said. “You’re up high enough.”
Yet they are regulars at Snow Creek. The two have been ski instructors there for nine years and have visited every year since the Platte County resort opened.
“That’s one of the bennies of being an instructor,” Don Park said. “You can ski whenever want.”
Sometimes the quality of Snow Creek’s snow is better than at destination resorts, Dianne Park said.
“This is the best place to learn,” she said. “When we come back every December, we’ve got a family waiting for us.”
Another regular, Paul Kelly, keeps an eye on the more challenging hills. He lives in Kansas City, North, and volunteers on the ski patrol.
“Our job is to ensure safe condition of the hills and respond to injuries,” he said.
He started skiing at Snow Creek in 1999 and volunteering in 2005.
“I go out to Colorado to do my skiing,” Kelly said. “But I still ski here sometimes. Sunday morning here, it’s real quiet.”
The resort usually has four patrollers on the hills at any given time, he said.
On opening day, Kelly saw at least two injured skiers, one a young woman and the other a young man, both with suspected leg injuries. One of Kelly’s volunteer colleagues swung open the exam room’s door and told him the injured man was ready to be brought down.
The man lay on his back, secured on a toboggan, and when he reached the bottom patrollers moved him onto a gurney, and Kelly wheeled him into the exam room, where two patrollers examined him.
“All patrollers here are Outdoor Emergency Care, certified through the National Ski Patrol, and they’re recertified annually,” Kelly said. “They’re also certified in CPR and lift evacuation, so if a chair lift breaks down, the patrollers know how to rescue riders.”
Holly Galloway, August Plock and their 10-year-old son, Liam, of Pflugerville, Texas, near Austin, showed up on opening day for their first visit to Snow Creek after hitting their main destination, Arrowhead Stadium, to see the Kansas City Chiefs play the San Diego Chargers.
Plock said he started skiing 30 years ago and skis about once a year, at places including Southern California, Oregon and Alaska.
“It was pretty icy out there,” he said of Snow Creek’s slopes. “Natural snow is better; it’s more powdery, lower humidity.”
Wherever he goes to ski, Plock said, “I gotta drive 10 hours minimum to get to snow.”
Abby Kerber, who’s 16 and lives in Blue Springs, is another instructor at Snow Creek. She teaches skiing and snowboarding, mainly to youngsters in the Snow Monsters, Ski With Me and Mountain Explorers programs.
Kerber learned to ski at age 4 and snowboard at age 9, both at Snow Creek.
“I love it,” she said. “I grew up skiing, and I couldn’t imagine not doing it.”
She’s a junior at Blue Springs High School, where she’s on the swim team and is an athletic trainer for all the school’s sports.
“I know how to deal with parents and with customers,” she said. “It’s given me a place to grow up and mature and deal with people.”
She’s especially fond of teaching children.
“It’s that difficult kid,” Kerber said, “and when they accomplish something they thought they couldn’t do, they say, ‘Abby! Look what I did!’”
Snow Creek: What you need to know
Location: About 6 miles north of Weston on Missouri 45
▪ 40 acres of hilly terrain
▪ A 300-foot vertical drop
▪ 11 trails for beginners, intermediates and advanced skiers and snowboarders
▪ Two terrain parks, one each for intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders
▪ A 700-foot-long tube park with a 100-foot vertical drop, five to eight lanes and a 240-foot conveyor carpet to shuttle tubers back to the top
▪ Two triple chairlifts, one double chairlift, one rope tow and a conveyor carpet in the learning area
▪ More than 1,500 skis and snowboards for rent
▪ A lodge with a bar, cafeteria-style restaurant and pizzeria
▪ Yearly Special Olympics event, supported with money and volunteers from the Kansas City Ski Club
Ski and snowboard hours:
▪ Noon to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday
▪ Noon to midnight Friday
▪ 9 a.m. to midnight Saturday
▪ 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
▪ Hours extended on some holidays
▪ 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday
▪ 4:30 p.m. to midnight Friday
▪ 10 a.m. to midnight Saturday
▪ 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
▪ Extended hours on some holidays
▪ Closed Monday to Wednesday except holidays
Ski and snowboard lift tickets:
▪ $44 all day for adults 13 to 69
▪ $29 for youths 7 to 12
▪ $5 for seniors adults 70 and older
▪ Free for children 6 and younger
▪ Prices vary for adult evening sessions and combo tickets
▪ $27 for two hours and $43 for four hours, with Thursday evening specials of $20 and $30 except on holidays