Maryland ski resort closes, other attractions face unseasonable February weather

Wisp closes amid "pretty much spring conditions' at Maryland-area ski resorts.

During an unusually warm winter, the region's ski resorts have struggled, through long stretches between snowfall, spring-like temperatures and snow-melting rains, to attract winter sports enthusiasts.

Now one of the most popular has given up for the year.

After watching the snow on its trails thaw four separate times this winter, Western Maryland's Wisp Resort called an early end to the season Sunday, blaming "historic, unseasonably warm rainy weather." The Garrett County attraction has moved on from skiing, snowboarding and skating to focus on aerial ropes courses, archery, gem mining and the Mountain Coaster.

The Baltimore region has seen less than an inch of snowfall all winter, and temperatures in the 50s, 60s and 70s have made February one of the warmest on record, according to the National Weather Service. The second straight winter of warm temperatures has melted snow from the runs and made filling chairlifts difficult.

While some Marylanders have enjoyed basking in the unseasonably warm weather, the region's wintertime attractions have been struggling to adjust.

"The forecast for the next several days calls for continued high temperatures in the upper 50's with more rain," Wisp said in a statement Sunday. "There is no sign of any winter weather over the next several weeks. ...

"Thanks to all who have done a stellar job in making the most we could out of a difficult season."

Ski resorts in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have been desperate for temperatures to drop so they can repack their brown, patchy slopes with man-made snow to prolong the winter.

Many have closed some of their trails; Wisp reduced skiing hours before announcing its closure. Those that offer other outdoor entertainment in the offseason have begun to do so.

"It's pretty much spring conditions," Wisp spokeswoman Lori Zaloga said last week. "At this point, we've rebuilt our snow pack three different times. ...

"I've been here 13 years and I've never experienced a February like this."

Wisp's owner, Pacific Group Resorts, gave season pass holders six complimentary tickets for use at its other resorts, including Ragged Mountain in New Hampshire and Mount Washington in British Columbia.

"While we're sitting here looking at melting snow, they're getting feet of snow," Zaloga said.

For nearly 20 years, police crews have carried chainsaws out onto frozen Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County to carve out the ice — some years a foot thick — to make way for a popular charity sprint into the bitterly frigid February water.

No chainsaws were needed for this year's Deep Creek Dunk. The lake didn't freeze.

"The joke has been made several times," said Sean Cassell, a spokesman for Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort in West Virginia: "The kayakers are having a wonderful winter."

Sixty-degree temperatures over the Presidents Day weekend forced the town of Oakland in Western Maryland to postpone its Winter Fest celebration so the central feature — dozens of ice sculptures — wouldn't melt by mid-afternoon.

Besides, frozen cantaloupe bowling isn't nearly as entertaining if the bowling ball goes soft.

"The forecast was just entirely too warm," said Michelle Ross, the town's business coordinator. "The sculptor called me and said, 'This isn't going to work.'"

Whitetail Resort in Mercersburg, Pa., closed eight of its 23 trails Monday. Several visitors have been hitting the links at the golf course in the past week, said Katrina Gayman, director of marketing and sales.

Whitetail has invested millions of dollars in snow-making equipment, with snow guns awaiting any temperature dip to start blasting flakes onto the trails. To prepare for the current warm spell, officials let the equipment run for 40 hours straight — enough for more than a foot of snow, Gayman said.

"We're not ready to close down yet," she said. "So if there's any opportunity to make more snow, when we see an opening, we will do it."

The early spring temperatures have closed Limelight, one of the marquee runs down the mountain. But Whitetail has already been open longer than last year, when it opened late due to warm temperatures, and the season lasted only 66 days.

"We're hoping this is cyclical," Gayman said.

The trails at Roundtop Mountain Resort in Lewisberry, Pa., were in decent enough shape to host the Pennsylvania Alpine Racing Association's U-12 state championship this weekend, according to spokesman Chris Dudding.

Fifteen of Roundtop's 21 slopes remained open Monday, with a 21-inch base of snow. The resort had roughly the same number of visitors over the Presidents Day weekend as it did during the same weekend last year, Dudding said in an email.

"We are holding up pretty well," he wrote. "Would we enjoy some colder weather? Sure! Are we still having fun playing the cards we have been dealt? Absolutely."

Visitors skated through a film of water last week on the ice rink at the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden in Washington, general manager John Connor said, many of them forgoing their heavy winter coats. The rink will remain open until March 12.

"We have some high school kids thoroughly enjoying themselves, sliding around in the water," he said.

Outdoor rinks in Silver Spring, Rockville and Pentagon Row are using a "proprietary product" to keep the ice cold, said Lance Curran, managing partner of owner Tri-State Ice Management in Annapolis.

Curran declined to describe the product, but he said the rinks don't sweat under the sun's glare, much less turn into puddles.

The Silver Spring rink will be open until March 26; Pentagon Row until March 19; and Rockville until March 12. As long as the ice stays firm, he said, most skaters prefer the warmer temperatures.

"Only a small percentage of people like to bundle up in hats and gloves," he said.

This year's Deep Creek Dunk was a chance for less adventurous participants to take the dip and earn their bragging rights. But most are out-of-towners; many come to ski or snowboard at Wisp, said Nate Garland, chief development officer for Special Olympics Maryland.

The event, co-hosted by the Maryland State Police and the Maryland Natural Resources Police, raises about $150,000 per year for the Special Olympics, he said. Registration for the dunk was down about 20 percent this year.

"If people aren't thinking snow, they aren't heading out," Garland said.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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