Ski resorts see promising winter season

Liberty Mountain Resort lodge maintenance worker Brian Dick, of Fairfield, Pa., clears snow from the patio with a snow plow.
Liberty Mountain Resort lodge maintenance worker Brian Dick, of Fairfield, Pa., clears snow from the patio with a snow plow. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

The wicked warm spell that bedeviled the region's ski areas last year has been broken. Snow guns, ably assisted by Wednesday's surprise storm, are turning the brownscape of late fall into the dazzling white of winter.

"That storm gave us a big kick. We're opening Friday," said Katrina Gayman, marketing director at Pennsylvania's Whitetail Mountain Resort, 90 minutes northwest of Baltimore. "Now we're going to be sitting pretty."

That goes for Whitetail's sister resorts — Liberty and Roundtop — which expect to open some trails Saturday morning. All three ski areas will start small and then ramp up operations as the weekend progresses and the snow gets deeper.

Until days ago, snow-making machines were engaged in a futile attempt to create a wonderland. After each teasing dip, the temperature soared, changing snow to slush.

"It was frustrating, tough to take," Gayman said.

But with another storm drawing a bead on the area Saturday and cold weather to follow on its heels, the resorts are feeling better about the coming holidays: New Year's Eve and then the bookends that make up the heart and soul of the ski season, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidents Day weekends.

"We've broken the fall weather pattern. Once we get open, I don't think we'll be fighting to stay open," said Anne Weimer, Liberty's marketing director.

Liberty's crews were making snow Thursday afternoon and into the night. Roundtop, just south of Harrisburg, Pa., fired up the snow guns Wednesday and shifted into around-the-clock snow making on Thursday as temperatures remained below freezing.

At Wisp Resort in Garrett County, Maryland's only ski area, snow-making has been sporadic since Thanksgiving, but efficient to the point of creating a 12-inch base that has allowed the opening of eight trails and five chairlifts. Snow guns are putting down a layer of white on eight other trails.

"We're telling people we're making snow 'as weather permits' — that's the everything phrase to us now," said resort spokeswoman Sarah Duck.

The same good news for skiers and snowboarders has spread from Maine to California, where some resorts are reporting more snow now than they had all of last season.

"We came into this season with high hopes, and we're being rewarded," said Kelly Davis, director of research for SnowSports Industries America, which tracks retail and manufacturing trends.

Resort operators acknowledge that they might have become a bit jaded in an industry that lives and dies by conditions beyond their control.

After several seasons of typical winter weather, last year was a meltdown. Liberty, Whitetail and Roundtop, which usually have all trails open well before Christmas and operate for more than 90 days each, were able to squeeze in about 66 days each. And even when the resorts had good conditions, the skiing public in the Baltimore-Washington corridor wasn't in the mood.

"It almost felt like the wheels never got rolling. When you live down in Baltimore and you're wearing a light jacket and out walking the dog and playing tennis, you're not thinking about skiing," Gayman said. "Only the die-hards showed up."

Davis agreed. "It's not just having snow, it's having snow fall in major metropolitan areas. When snow falls on the heads of people in the city, it gets them amped up."

Last year, U.S. resorts reported a 15.8 percent drop, to 51 million skier and snowboarder visits, the second-biggest decline on record, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Kelly said sales of snow sports equipment fell 6 percent from 2010.

That pattern looked to be repeating itself this year, when above-average temperatures lingered through the fall.

Retailers nationwide reported a 30 percent drop in sales of cross country ski equipment in October compared with the same period last year. Snowboarding equipment sales fell 19 percent and alpine ski gear slipped 8 percent, Kelly said.

Locally, it meant that several thousand seasonal employees hired to run the lifts, rent equipment, work in restaurants and bars, and patrol the slopes remained idle.

"All the seasonals hope to work before Christmas to make some extra money for presents," said Gayman. "It was a struggle. But we have good folks who stuck it out."

It also could have meant continued struggles for Wisp, which emerged from bankruptcy protection this month when EPT Ski Properties of Kansas City bought the property for $23.5 million. The resort is being run by Salt Lake City-based Pacific Group, a firm involved in ski resort condominium developments in Squaw Valley, Calif.; Park City, Utah, home of the 2002 Olympic ski venues; and Whistler, British Columbia, site of the 2010 Winter Olympic skiing events.

Instead, the Maryland resort is getting ready for a full schedule of ski camps, lessons and Governor's Cup racing in March.

It takes Liberty less than an hour to crank up its 350 snow guns once the computerized system senses conditions are right, said Ron Crozier, the mountain manager.

While water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, snow makers say ideal conditions occur when the temperature dips below 28 degrees. Low humidity is part of the cocktail, too. A wet-bulb temperature in the low- to mid-20s is optimal.

In just 60 seconds, Liberty's system pumps 5,200 gallons of water to make 21.66 tons of snow, or 1,300 tons of snow an hour. As the snow piles up, the crews fire up the massive machines that sculpt the surface to perfection.

"And then," said Crozier, smiling and savoring the thought of a season unlike the last one, "we charge the hill."


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