FAIRBANKS — The old fleet of borough transit buses that have ferried skiers to the top of Moose Mountain Ski Resort for the past two decades are being parked.
What exactly that means for the Goldstream Valley downhill ski area in terms of an opening date and lift ticket prices this season remains to be seen.
For the first time in 18 years, Moose Mountain owner Roger Evans is looking to contract with someone to safely haul skiers to the top of the 2,000-foot hill rather than hiring drivers to steer the old transit buses up the winding, dirt, mountain road.
With the high price of fuel, the cost of operating the buses has reached the point of no return, he said.
“We just can’t afford them anymore,” Evans said. “They’re really nice but they’re really old. The headaches and energy costs are just too much for us.”
Moose Mountain, or
The Moose, as it is known by shredders, is one of three downhill ski areas in Fairbanks and the only one without a chairlift. Both Birch Hill Ski and Snowboard Area on Fort Wainwright and Mount Aurora Skiland on Cleary Summit use chairlifts to ferry skiers up their slopes, while Moose Mountain has always used buses.
On Monday, Evans said he had just started making phone calls to bus and tour companies in Fairbanks to see if any of them would be interested in a winter gig shuttling skiers up Moose Mountain. He’s hoping to have something in place by the time there is enough snow to open, which is usually on Thanksgiving weekend.
“We’re hopeful there are a few that are interested,” Evans said. “A lot of them have nothing to do in the winter and they just mothball their buses.”
Evans isn’t selling any season passes until he knows what the cost of transporting skiers to the top of the mountain will be and what days the resort will be open. Last season, the resort was open Friday through Sunday.
Regardless of who takes the job, Evans said, he expects lift ticket prices will increase from last year’s $37 and $23 for adults and children, respectively. Lift and season ticket prices won’t be announced until a contractor is hired, he said.
“I know what it costs us to do it but I’m not sure what it will cost someone else to do it,” he said. “Somebody else has to do what we did and make a profit, so it’s got to cost more.
“For us it’s kind of been a labor of love,” Evans said. “We’ve never made any money, but we’ve kept it open for 20 years.”
Not since the ski area opened in 1993 has Evans contracted the bus service out. That year, the now-defunct school bus company Tundra Tours was hired to haul skiers up the mountain.
“They did it the first year, and then they went out of business and sold their buses, so we picked up 10 of them and had lots of parts for years,” Evans said. “We finally auctioned the last ones off last year.”
High fuel costs
For the last 10 years, the ski area has used old borough transit buses to get skiers to the top of the mountain. The resort owns seven of the buses and tries to keep at least three buses running at all times, which isn’t always easy to do.
“That means full-time maintenance wizards familiar with the idiosyncrasies of each bus, and a constant flow of expensive, heavy parts and out-of-this-world shipping costs,” Evans wrote in an email. “It’s a lot of work for a small company that’s only open 40 days a year.”
These days, Evans pays more for fuel than he does drivers. The big diesel buses only get about 2 miles to the gallon, he said.
“They’re burning 30 to 40 gallons a day per bus,” Evans said.
There are other costs, too, such as insurance and electricity to plug the buses in to keep the engines warm so they will start, since they are kept outside and not in a heated garage.
“It costs $500 a month per bus just to plug them in,” he said.
Chairlift not considered
A chairlift has never been considered a viable option at Moose Mountain because of the high cost, Evans said.
A mile-long standard speed chairlift would cost about $1 million and would take 12 to 14 minutes to ascend the hill compared to 10 minutes or less in a heated bus. A high-speed chairlift would increase the cost to between $3million and $5 million, and a gondola or bubble chair would cost approximately $5 million, Evans said.
“For that kind of length, you need a high-speed chairlift, and then the cost doubles or triples,” Evans said.
In the meantime, Evans and the crew at The Moose are busy readying the slopes for the winter ski season. Evans is confident there will be skiing at Moose Mountain this winter.
“We’re preparing the slopes and keeping the road in good shape,” he said. “We’ll be skiing one way or another.”