You guys might want to run grab an extra cup of coffee as this post is a long one! My email inbox really begins to chirp this time of year. However, this particular “pre-season” I’m getting a few more than usual and a lot of those emails are from people who are pretty “chippy” about their favorite ski area not making snow over the last couple of days. Fans of Wisp Resort in Maryland are probably the “chippiest” to date. They witnessed the cold temps that began this past Thursday night and over this weekend and simply expected the guns to fire. Ditto that for fans of a couple of ski areas in West Virginia and North Carolina.
Some of the emails we received would make you think that resorts can simply make snow anytime they want, regardless of the temperatures, regardless of the weather forecast, and without regard of the costs to do so.
Some have asked questions like, “Guys, I think you are in a perfect position to explain why one ski area seems to be able to make snow when others can’t or don’t? Some just seem more willing to take chances. Are some resorts just more aggressive about it?”
Hard to believe, but check out what conditions looked like at Appalachian Ski Mountain on November 1st last year!
As I mentioned earlier, some of the inquiries about a few of the resorts are more like “finger-pointing” than actual queries. Here’s one I received (name and resort withheld) – “Can you explain why the &^%$ “X RESORT” is not making snow? They were one of the last to open last season; one of the first to close and now they are not blowing when every other place is.”
First, I always take this opportunity to educate our readers that ski areas do not blow snow. The make snow. Snow blowers are those things that people use to clear sidewalks of snow. The machines that our ski areas use to get snow onto the slopes don’t have snow inside of them. There’s no snow in those hoses. The machines actually use water and air to MAKE snow.
While I’m at it, the snow that they make is not artificial or fake snow either. It is real snow.
The answer to your questions about why one or more ski areas seem to make snow when others in the area don’t is a bit more complicated and the potential answers are numerous.
Often, contrary to what a lot of people think, the reason one ski area is making snow and another isn’t is that the temperatures could be one or two degrees different from one mountain location to another. That’s all it takes to have the snowmaking equipment running at one place and not another.
For example, Beech and Sugar mountains are only minutes apart as the crow flies and yet as I type this story, Beech is reporting a temperature of 41° at their base and Sugar is reporting 44.9° at their base lodge. However, it is almost 4° colder on top of Sugar. That can often have a ski resort making snow on one portion of their mountain while not doing so on another portion.
I’ve witnessed a 33° temperature on top of Snowshoe’s 4848′ elevation and yet it was 26° at the base. More often than not – the higher you go in elevation, the colder it is. So we’ve seen it snowing at the summit and not at the base AND the other way around as well!
So temperatures and elevations can play havoc with whether or not resorts are running their snowmaking equipment. Technology is now allowing ski areas to actually place sensors that monitor temperatures, wet-bulb and other input at each and every snowmaking tower across their entire mountain. Those sensors are fed into a computer system and closely monitored by the snowmaking crews on each mountain.
Another consideration is the weather forecast or “window of opportunity”. It could be cold as heck for 24-72 hours, but if the ski resort mountain ops see a warm, wet period closely following a cold snap, they might opt not to waste the resources which include water, electricity, manpower, etc. Bear in mind that making snow is not cheap. Our ski area ops are “riverboat gamblers” but they are not stupid.
The cost to make snow is highly dependent upon the weather, the terrain and the technology. When it comes to how much money each resort spends on snowmaking – you can’t get a perfect answer, because I’ve come to know that they often don’t know the exact number themselves. I can tell you that it isn’t cheap. So when you see one ski area making snow and another isn’t – they are probably looking at the forecast 3-5 days ahead and weighing that forecast against the costs of making snow and seeing most of it melting or being washed away from rising temperatures or heavy rain.
You guys want more? How about a lack of water? Yes, it happens during severe drought seasons. Without water or a lot of it, resorts have to ration when they can make snow.
Not All Ski Areas Are Created (or Operating) Equal…
All of us have our own favorite place to ski or ride. There are (17) ski areas in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic and to be honest there are three or four of those resorts that struggle greatly financially to remain open and competitive.
Over the past month, we’ve been sharing some of the histories of our region’s ski areas and one of the most common themes in those stories are the financial struggles that they’ve all seen from time to time. Our region has lost numerous ski areas even in my time of covering the industry in these last 20+ years. Sky Valley, Hawksnest, and Mill Ridge were all operating ski areas in the region and they’ve all been closed now for years. Scaly Mountain remains open for snow tubing, but they too closed for skiing years ago. Hawksnest still does snow-tubing as well but their old trails lay unused.
I’m not going to share the financial instabilities per ski areas in the region, however, people have to realize that all of the resorts are businesses. Some are somewhat better ran than others and even the best of them go through growing pains. Just like any other kind of business, sometimes they will suffer from unlucky or questionable decisions and sometimes they’re just dealt some bad cards.
Two different ski resorts in our region had set themselves up for a huge growth mode by adding mountaintop lodging, golf courses and more. Millions were invested and at about the same time that ground was broken for development — 2008 happened.
If you search the archived stories of this website you will see fires, lightning strikes, threats of bankruptcy, financial restructuring and more as problems that have befallen our ski resorts.
So when it comes to making a decision to make snow or not, some ski areas have to stand pat and play their cards a bit more cautiously. It’s kind of like playing poker. If you have a pretty big pile of cash or chips sitting in front of you, you can gamble on any hand you’re dealt. When you lose, it doesn’t hurt as much as it might if you’re looking at just enough cash or chips to keep you in the game for a hand or two. If all you have is enough to toss in your ante, then you’re probably only going “IN” on only the best of hands.
Translation: 20° temps for a two week stretch equals a great hand! (Go all in!)
Anything less…you have to consider the odds.
Over this past weekend, I witnessed a ski area marketing rep playing word games with one of their disgruntled fans on social media, who questioned why they were not making snow on Friday (when supposedly many were). They responded, “As you know the operational cost to do so is very high and even though we would love to make “Marketing Snow” we choose to focus on producing the best possible product throughout the season. Thanks.”
I probably wouldn’t have answered the question that way – but it was the same answer that all ski areas would make when pressured to react. However, I can assure you that Cataloochee Ski Area, Sugar Mountain Resort and Snowshoe Mountain don’t make “marketing snow”. Each of those resorts are making snow whenever possible with a look at getting open sooner than later.
Some resorts that are not making snow are also looking at skier demand. We’ve often reported on this phenomenon, but our ski areas rarely close at the end of a season because of a lack of snow. They usually close because the skier visits drop to nothing earlier than the depth of snow drops to non-ski able.
In the same way, each ski area knows their audience. Some choose to open later in December, because THAT is when the skier visit numbers warrant the costs of making snow. So they will “reverse-engineer” that to make snow early enough in preparation for those dates.
So in Summary – reasons why some ski areas make snow when others don’t:
1. Differences in temperature from one mountain to the next.
2. Influences of elevation. (The elevations themselves AND temperature inversions.)
3. 3-5 day forecast.
4. Availability of water source.
5. Financial stability and costs compared to potential revenue.
Armed With All of This…Here is What We Know About WHO MADE SNOW and WHO DIDN’T and When to Expect Each Ski Area to Open:
A LOT of ski areas will OPEN AS SOON AS WEATHER PERMITS.
WEATHER PERMITTING (ASAP):
Appalachian Ski Mountain. Did NOT make snow this weekend. (Had planned for Nov. 17th, but that won’t happen.)
Bryce Resort – made quite a lot of snow! See: http://www.resortcams.com/webcams/bryce-resort/
Bryce seems to be ready to deliver snowmaking early and often.
Love the photo to the left.
Canaan Valley Resort – did not make snow. Looking for the next (first) good window of consistent and prolonged cold air.
Cataloochee Ski Area – tested their snowmaking equipment November 9th. Like Sugar, they would already be open if the weather was cooperating. So look for Cat to make snow during the first prolonged cold spell.
Massanutten Resort posted, “The recent cold weather has us excited! Massanutten’s snow makers are going to test equipment and take advantage of the temperatures Saturday morning by firing up the snow guns. We will continue to take advantage of snow making opportunities in the coming weeks and will make an opening day announcement when possible. Stay tuned!”
Sugar Mountain Resort – made the most snow of any of the North Carolina ski areas beginning this past weekend. Unfortunately, this gamble didn’t work out. (There’s still a lot of cash and chips in front of Gunther 😉 ) Sugar will make snow again as soon as the temps allow and we could STILL see an opening as early as Tuesday or Wednesday of this week. If not, look for it to happen this weekend.
Wintergreen Resort – made snow on Saturday morning. More of a test than anything. But they will hit it hard as soon as a good window of snowmaking opportunity presents itself.
Winterplace Resort – basically tested their system and made some snow Friday. I think Winterplace is an “ASAP OPENING” but it might be closer to Thanksgiving Weekend or shortly before or after. By the way, any of you looking for a job? Winterplace posted this as well, “We took advantage of the cold weather today and tested out the snowguns! Winter is coming! If you or anybody you know is looking to work in the ski industry, fill out an application and set up an interview with us!” Click the link: http://www.winterplace.com/employment
Beech Mountain fired their guns November 10th “testing their snowmaking system”. They gave November 24th as their scheduled opening day.
Snowshoe Mountain Resort – certainly had the best opportunities to make snow in the region and they made the most of it! They already LOOK like they could open today…but have November 22nd as their opening date.
Timberline Resort – Plan to open December 14th. Did not maken snow this time around.
OTHER OPENING REMARKS –
Ober Gatlinburg – Will open for Tubing November 18th. Ski area usually opens early to mid December.
Omni Homestead – Did not make snow. They usually open mid-to-late December.
Sapphire Valley Ski Resort – Usually mid-to-late December.
Wisp Resort – did not make snow. In previous seasons we would have included them in the “opening as soon as” category, but lately they’ve been looking at mid-December as a target.
Wolf Ridge Resort – did not make snow this time around. They usually look at mid-to-late December to get open.
As soon as weather permits. When might that be?
I wish we could tell you that we’re looking at a prolonged cold snap coming in for the rest of the season. We’ve had a few colder-than-normal days and nights this weekend, however things return to about normal for this time of year for the next few days. We could see some snowmaking ops Sunday night, Monday night and Tuesday night at various mountain tops. Then again over the approaching weekend…Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights (November 18-21st).
So I think we’ll see some strong chances that Sugar will get open maybe even early to mid THIS week.
We’re getting a lot of emails from those of you who always look for Cataloochee to get open at the same time as Sugar. We have not spoken directly with Tammy or Chris but they are probably looking at the same weather data that we are and things look “dicey” as to whether or not the temps will be cold enough, long enough for any opening at time soon. Unless things change, we’re thinking that other than the colder climbs of West Virginia, it may be early December before we see “ski season” kick in – in earnest.
Country Roads…take me home
The West Virginia Tourism Department is taking great advantage of some good, old school music to work into their latest marketing video. Check it out.
If you anything to share or ask, email me: [email protected]