The bonus season is over.
Now we are into December, and it is time again to ski, board and do all the other activities that make all the recent months of bad sliding worth the wait.
Most of the places in our area have opened for the season — or will soon — with limited terrain now, but they have high hopes for the holiday season. This is a sport for optimists.
Snow making systems make trail coverage possible, especially at this time of year. But what we all want in the hills is regular snowfall, the type that comes from the sky where no machines live. The real hard-core skiers and riders know that conditions on the trail can be very good, even when it is brown in the backyard. But most people wait, or at least park their enthusiasm, until they see snow in the driveway.
Last winter was a poor one from the perspective of skiers and other winter sports enthusiasts. Little natural snowfall and relatively warm temperatures made the ski story a tough one to tell. Conditions at the hill may have been great — and for the most part, they were once the season got going — but many people stayed away. Nothing in the backyard! This wasn’t just a local phenomenon. The western half of North American had a tough year, too, unless you happened to be in Alaska which seemed to hog all the snow a year ago.
As a result of last season, you won’t see a lot of flashy new lifts and facilities around the region this year. In fact, with the exception of a new base lodge at Holiday Valley in western New York and a series of improvements at Burke Mountain in northern Vermont, which was recently bought out by a Jay Peak-based group, there isn’t much new to capture the imagination.
Instead, think “infrastructure.”
Wherever money is being spent this year, chances are, it involves pumps, pipes and snow guns — not very exciting stuff for most of us. But that is what is necessary to run a ski area today, whether you are talking about three snow guns added by owner Jim Blaise at Royal Mountain in Caroga Lake or more than 100 new guns put into service at Gore over the past two winters. Okemo in Vermont will operate more than 1,000 guns when temperatures are right.
With temperatures earlier this week leaning more toward swimming than sliding, it is these guns that keep the ground frozen and the trails covered until ski season at the hill matches ski season on the calendar.
“Ideally, to make the best snow, we like to see temperatures in the teens or lower with low humidity,” said Gore Mountain manager Mike Pratt, who has been calling the shots at his hill since the mid-1980s. It happened many nights in November, and as a result, Gore had six miles of trails available for skiers and riders last weekend. A year ago on the same weekend: zero!
And the skiing, although limited, was good. For most of us who need a couple of days on the hill to get up to speed, having a few cruisers available is enough to spark the enthusiasm for the season ahead.
“What all experienced mountain managers are doing these days is focusing attention on efficiency, We will sacrifice quantity of terrain for quality, trying to make certain we have great conditions on some trails rather than marginal snow on lots,” Pratt said.
A lot of what areas are able to do is because of what Pratt calls “the evolution of operations.”
For instance, he notes that last year, he produced the same quantity of snow on Gore trails with 400 less hours of snow-making operations.
“That meant a 26 percent savings in energy costs, which is especially important as fuel costs go up,” he said.
This may sound important only to those whose ski clothes come mainly from Carhartt. But keep in mind that if what many scientists are predicting will be warmer winters in the years ahead, the improvement in snow making technology is what will keep the sport alive and appealing for years to come.
While the list of capital improvements in place this winter in the region may be small, there is one big change just recently put in place: Belleayre Mountain in the Catskills is now being managed by the Lake Placid-based Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA).
This has made sense for a long time, but the final deal passed last spring by the state Legislature was just completed in mid-November. Belleayre, the original state-operated area, now rejoins Whiteface and Gore under a single administrative umbrella.
Whiteface was a part of the ORDA operation from the start in 1982, and Gore was added to the mix in 1984. But with folks in the Catskills opposed to consolidation and ORDA officials at the time lacking enthusiasm for the merger, Belleayre remained separate under control of the Department of Environmental Conservation and apart from the other two state operations.
There were ups and downs over the years, and more recently, hard feelings as private ski operators in the region believed they were subject to unfair competition from the state-owned area. On the other side, Belleayre, as part of a state agency, found its operations squeezed by budget cuts.
The shift to ORDA management means that Belleayre will share in state ski area allocations with Gore and Whiteface and will benefit from the authority’s 30 years of ski area management expertise.
The private areas in the region seem to like the new arrangement. Just this week, a new cooperate lift ticket venture was announced that will give patrons a chance to ski Hunter, Windham Mountain and Plattekill, along with Belleayre on a jointly sponsored Catskillls ticket. That’s a big deal for the areas that a year ago had difficulty just talking to one another.
For fans of “The Skiing Weatherman” who has provided weekly televised ski reports for the past 20 years, you won’t be seeing Herb Stevens on television stations in the Northeast this winter. The one-time WNYT-TV meteorologist parted ways this summer when New Hampshire-based Snow Country Reports elected not to renew his contract.
Stevens developed the Skiing Weatherman idea in the late 1980s after leaving the local TV station and sold the business six years ago to the regional ski reporting service. Now independent again, he is marketing his reports to web-based sponsors, including the Ski Areas of New York association, which will provide his reports online this season.
There is some new optimism in the Speculator area this winter as Matt and Laura O’Brien take over as owners of the Oak Mountain Ski Area, which has operated only on the strength of public funding and local volunteer efforts for the past few season.
The new owners who managed the ski area two years ago hope to open this weekend with two trails and one lift. If their snow making efforts make this possible, it will be a big boost to Oak skiers who have seen their area — that dates back to the 1940s — hover on the brink of extinction recently.
The O’Briens, who have lengthy Speculator connections, have ski business and event management experience at The Canyons and the Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah, spent last year working at Sunday River in Maine.
While things are looking up at Oak, it appears that the Big Tupper Ski Area will not open this winter. After three years of being operated by volunteers, locals threw in the towel this fall in the wake of the ongoing legal battle over development of the ambitious Adirondack Club and Resort Project in the area. The plan has been on the drawing board for years and finally received Adirondack Park Association approval to proceed earlier this year. But progress has been halted by a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, which led to the decision not to operate the ski area this winter.