MERCERSBURG, PA. — As flurries fell on browned Appalachian foothills northwest of Hagerstown, Whitetail mountain looked a misty white Thursday, with plumes of snow floating like steam over ski trails.
The region's ski resorts all took advantage of surprisingly cold temperatures and moderate humidity to blanket their slopes with man-made snow. Rather than waiting for Mother Nature to churn up a snowstorm, crews use "guns" that shoot water and pressurized air 30 feet high to create an atmosphere in miniature, precipitating snowflakes as long as the air is cold and dry enough.
Skiing or snowboarding is a tricky proposition at this time of the year in this part of the country. After a chill allowed some surprise ski runs around Thanksgiving, a roller coaster of fluctuating temperatures and rain mixing in with wintry precipitation has delayed resorts from declaring the season open for good.
But with a spell of ideal snow-making weather Thursday and Friday and no unseasonable warm-ups in the forecast, they plan to open this weekend. Wisp Resort in Garrett County is holding its official season opening Saturday, and while Whitetail Resort and other Pennsylvania resorts have opened sporadically so far, they hope to stay open for good starting Saturday — if the weather cooperates.
"It's an industry that is a bit of a guessing game and a bit of a gamble," said John McCracken, a spokesman for Wisp Resort. "Even though the meteorologists say one thing, it could do a totally different thing."
That's been apparent this year. At Whitetail, members of the resort staff refer to an AccuWeather service that suggests when ideal snow-making weather is expected, color-coding the calendar in blue for days with cold temperatures and favorable air moisture and red for warm or rainy days. While the calendar for next week had been full of blue just a few days ago, Thursday it was showing all red.
But as light snow showers scattered across the region, conditions became surprisingly ideal Thursday morning as the snowy clouds rolled in and temperatures dropped into the upper 20s at Whitetail's base and the mid-20s at its peak. And the prime conditions were expected to last into Friday, paving the trails for weekend day-trippers.
"We'll stay online all day," said Chet Naylor, snow-making manager at Whitetail.
Most resorts across the region seek to open a week after Thanksgiving, but it's not unusual for that to get pushed into mid-December. Wisp hit the target last year but was about two weeks late the year before, McCracken said.
"There's really no rhyme or reason," he said.
Later in the season, it gets easier. Garrett County gets about 120 inches of snowfall each winter, McCracken said, six times the annual average at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
"It's definitely not unusual for this time of year to not have the snow-making temperatures quite yet," said Anne Weimer, a spokeswoman for Liberty Mountain Resort, a sister resort to Whitetail southwest of Gettysburg. "It's still early."
But the resorts take advantage of the weather when possible. While late November included a few days that jumped into the 60s and 70s across the region, abnormally cold temperatures in the days around Thanksgiving enabled resorts that included Wisp, Whitetail, Liberty and Ski Roundtop to open for the holiday weekend.
That brought out skiers such as Jeff Rydell, a 31-year-old Dundalk resident who bought an Advantage Card from Snow Time Inc. — operator of Liberty, Whitetail and a third resort, Ski Roundtop south of Harrisburg, Pa. — giving him discounted lift tickets. While there weren't many trails open at Liberty that weekend, Rydell said, he was eager to get the season started.
"I wanted to go pick [the Advantage Card] up anyway," Rydell said. "I went just to get a nice first day in."
But the next weekend brought seesawing temperatures. Wisp delayed its official opening, scheduled for Dec. 6, by a week. Roundtop was the only one of the three able to open last weekend because its slopes face northward. The added sunshine that hits southern-facing slopes like Whitetail's makes it markedly more difficult to make and keep snow.
"You'll watch a foot disappear right before your eyes," Naylor said.
But on other days, the snow piles up.
More than 200 snow guns blasting at Whitetail on Thursday sounded like a roaring river. Gusty winds made the base of the mountain feel more like a Siberian winter than late fall in Pennsylvania. The snow-making operation is run from a command center where large flat-screen monitors map out more than 500 snow-making towers and hydrants, with details on temperature, humidity and output at each one.
The system was blasting about 3,500 gallons of water each minute along with pressurized air to spread homemade snow widely across the slopes. It's capable of up to 8,000 gallons per minute, producing enough snow to cover 1,000 acres with a foot of accumulation across a typical season, Naylor said. He said it's one of the largest snow-making operations in the country — a necessity for a resort at relatively southern latitude and low elevation.
But even with the technology, Naylor and his colleagues are at the mercy of the weather. They look for temperatures of 30 degrees or colder and relatively low humidity to take over the snow-making from Mother Nature. If it's too warm or the air is too moist, crews working on the snow guns will find their coats sopping wet instead of painted in white.
"Mother Nature has 30,000 feet to work with, and we're trying to do it in 30 feet," Naylor said.