The ski season was off to a reasonable start: in North Carolina, the Cataloochee Ski Area surprised many by opening on November 4, 2006, earlier than any other resort in the mid-Atlantic. Snowshoe Mountain Resort opened on Thanksgiving Day, and by late November and early December, virtually all resorts in the region commenced snowmaking in earnest. Resorts big and small began launching their season during the first two weeks of December. And then, the cold air swirled away and disappeared from the region, as if frightened away by an unseen force -; global warming, or perhaps El Nino, theorized many skiers as they looked forlornly at quickly-melting slopes. Since mid-December, sustained cold weather hasn’t returned. The long warm spell is having a profound effect on the ski industry, from North Carolina up to New England. But the effect has varied from resort to resort.
Resorts at higher elevations have fared better.
“Here at Snowshoe Mountain we have been able to make snow over 40 nights this winter and have 30 trails open,” said Snowshoe’s Andrea Smith. “An average of nine to ten thousand guests per day helped Snowshoe post a record holiday season over the past few weeks.”
Snowshoe credits their 4,800-foot elevation, snowmaking capability, and off-slope activities with these record numbers. But while Snowshoe’s numbers are up, other resorts’ numbers are most definitely down, and Snowshoe is undoubtedly benefitting from the resulting decrease in competition. Some resorts close to Washington, D.C., such as Pennsylvania’s Whitetail and Liberty Mountain Resorts, had to shut down before the Christmas holiday, shortly after opening for the season. They have yet to re-open. Only a few resorts remain open in Pennsylvania, and with limited conditions. No snow means no visitors, and no revenue. Losing the period between Christmas and Martin Luther King Day means that 1/3 of the season’s revenue could be lost, unless skier traffic picks up in the latter part of the season. Ski resorts hire a significant number of temporary workers during the winter months, and when the slopes are closed, these workers do not receive a paycheck; the income they are losing will not be recouped if and when the season turns around.
According to a story in the Washington Post, local retail shops are also hurting from the extended mild spell, which the Post reports is the bleakest in 25 years. Shops such as Ski Center, Princeton Sports, and Ski Chalet are seeing lower sales of ski equipment and clothing this season.
Resorts such as Wisp, Seven Springs, and Snowshoe have offered reasonable early-season skiing, making snow periodically as the temperature dipped below freezing and relying on talented groomers to preserve and shift snow around, covering up bare spots. Seven Springs Resort even trucked snow from the bottom of its slopes to the top, giving groomers a chance to spread it out along the slope.
Every resort official and employee is undoubtedly keeping a close eye on the weather forecast and, for the first time in a long while, it is starting to look promising. Low temperatures will be dipping below freezing by Tuesday night, and all local resorts should have at least three or four nights to make snow. That should be enough for many closed resorts to re-open, and open resorts to fortify and expand open terrain. Improvements in snowmaking in recent years, such as the installation of high-efficiency fan guns and computerized control, will allow resorts to quickly make high-quality snow. By next weekend, temperatures might climb again, although nowhere near the 60’s and 70’s they reached in recent days. Although long-term forecasts in this region are notoriously finicky, some forecasters, such as AccuWeather and CapitalWeather.com, predict that temperatures could plunge towards the third week in January.
That could salvage the ski season. And, winter sports enthusiasts should also take comfort in the fact that many of the region’s largest snowstorms have occurred in February and March -; so while Colorado may have been getting most of the natural snow so far this season, there still could be plenty of snow storms in the mid-Atlantic region.
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.