Rockies resorts watch sunny skies for snow
November 17, 2007
DENVER ” Click: balmy fall weather. Click: brown barren slopes. Click: Scattered patches of mostly machine-made snow.
From live Internet camera shots, one can easily glimpse the challenges facing resorts across the Rockies as they struggle to open for the Thanksgiving weekend. Some, including Vail Mountain and Steamboat Springs, have postponed start dates.
Conspiring against them are weather systems that have kept storms away and hampered snowmaking and the fact that Thanksgiving falls earlier in the month than usual. The good news is forecasts are calling for snow next week in Colorado and Utah.
“It’s always nice to get open for Thanksgiving but the fact of the matter is sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t,” said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association trade group. “If we can be up and operating in a substantial fashion by the middle of December, it bodes well for the industry.”
The nation’s $6 billion ski industry is hoping for a banner season after posting a 7 percent drop in visitors last year when a fickle winter favored the Rockies and left other parts of the country wanting.
Although resorts relied solely on natural snow to coat runs decades ago, consistent improvements in snow manufacturing have pushed the traditional ski season start to Thanksgiving weekend.
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To churn out the best, most consistent snow, the machines need to operate in temperatures hovering around freezing or below with low humidity. In Colorado, resort operators say it’s been about 10 degrees above normal for the past couple of weeks.
“What we see early season is the passionate folks,” Berry said. “We always want to take care of them, the people who’ve been waiting all summer for winter and are ready to start no matter whether we start in September or November.”
As of this early date, the Northeast has seen early snow and good snowmaking weather, Berry said. There has been a lot of precipitation in the Northwest, although snow levels vary from resort to resort.
At Killington, Vt., where it was snowing Friday, the resort had an 18-inch base with 19 trails out of 200 open. It hopes to have a few more available by Thanksgiving. “We obviously hope for a better start to the winter season than we did last year,” resort spokesman Tom Horrocks said.
In the Rockies, it’s been warm ” miserable conditions for snowmaking but typical for the season, said Assistant State Climatologist Nolan Doeskin of Fort Collins, Colo.
Often, there is a significant storm the week of Thanksgiving that will deliver snow to the mountains, such as one that’s in the forecast for next week. “It will be interesting to see how it unfolds,” Doeskin said.
In Utah, storms blanketed the mountains with snow last month, prompting some resorts to predict early openings. But a spell of warm weather has them delaying opening dates from this week to next week, Ski Utah spokeswoman Jessica Kunzer said.
Seven of Colorado’s 26 resorts were open Friday with limited runs, including Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Arapahoe Basin, Winter Park and Wolf Creek. At least three have postponed opening dates from Friday to next week or later.
It’s only the second time in 27 years that the Steamboat Springs resort has delayed its opening, this time from Friday to Nov. 30, said resort spokeswoman Heidi Thomsen. The other postponement occurred in 2001.
Although Steamboat started making snow Nov. 3, the warmer weather has prevented full use of the machines, but conditions are expected to improve next week, she said.
“We’ve kind of been through weather patterns like this before,” Murray Selleck, a manager of Ski Haus International shop. “For Steamboat Springs, winter could show up overnight.”
In the nine years that Bill Jensen has been in Vail, the chief operating officer of Vail Mountain says a storm has hit every year between Nov. 15 and Nov. 30. That’s why he’s counting on next week’s forecast to help open up the resort.
Vail’s independent forecasters are predicting up to 1.5 feet of snow in a storm that will hit Tuesday and continue through Friday morning. “For a ski area, that’s a good thing,” Jensen said.