CAPITAL REGION — Although Friday was officially the first day of winter, the ski season typically answers to the thermometer more so than the calendar.
Colder temperatures in late fall, followed by unseasonably warm temperatures and rain have led to a roller coaster start for local ski resorts.
Maple Ski Ridge opened on Dec. 14 with two of the venue's eight trails open, including one trail lift and one surface lift, but the business closed temporarily on Friday and Saturday due to the rain.
"We're trying to keep people off the trails to preserve the snow, because when it's rainy it's better to keep people off it to keep people from putting holes in it. That way we can maintain a better product, better snow for our customers," said Alex Kaczor, operations manager for Maple Ridge.
Kaczor said once the temperatures stabilize at about 28 degrees or colder Maple Ridge will be able to make and maintain artificial snow.
Dana Walton, who's in charge of Maple Ridge's skiing instruction program said the six-week ski school will start on Jan. 5 regardless of weather. She said the ski school already has more than 800 students registered, that's up from 740 last year.
"We don't have a final count yet, because people are still registering. People can register for the programs right up until the day they begin," she said.
In Caroga in Fulton County, Royal Mountain ski resort owner-operator Jim Blaise said his company took advantage of the early cold snaps and opened up on Nov. 23. He said his business benefits from being at a slightly higher elevation than some of the more southern ski resorts and will typically get mini-lake effect snows from western Fulton County water bodies when it might be raining in the city of Johnstown.
Blaise said he's had luck opening early three out of the last eight years. But the key is his ability to make artificial snow.
"When the temperature drops, we can make snow fast. We've had about three cold snaps, and when that happens we put down a tremendous amount of snow," Blaise said.
Blaise said he's put down three feet of snow on his 14 trails and they are all open now. The thick base enables him to ride out any uptick in temperature.
"The worst thing the warmer weather does to us is dampen skiing enthusiasm when people don't see snow in their backyards they don't think skiing," Blaise said.
"We've increased our snowmaking capacity every year, so people know if there's snow anywhere, it'll be here," Blaise said. "People can't believe we're 100 percent [of our trails) open, but we are."
Royal Mountain added seven more "tower-mounted snow guns" giving it a total arsenal of 27 this season. Blaise said artificial snow is the key to dealing with temperatures that in recent decades have seemed to fluctuate to higher highs in the 40s down to lower lows.
"The way the weather is now, it's all snowmaking and grooming, so when it's cold you've got to pump out the maximum amount you can. If you've only got six inches down, it's going to melt," Blaise said.
Laura O'Brien, who owns Oak Mountain, in Speculator, Herkimer County, said her business opened three of its 22 trails on Dec. 8 and three of its ski lifts.
"We're hoping for more snow, and I think it's the forecast. We have 45 percent snowmaking capacity — we should have another trail open (Sunday)," O'Brien said.
"I think [the way the weather] affected us the most has been in our skier traffic," O'Brien said. "Because if you're living down south, where a lot of our visitors come from, they don't have snow. So, they aren't thinking about skiing. So, we were a little slower Saturday, but Christmas week is generally one of our biggest weeks of the year."
Sara Montgomery, the general manager and owner of West Mountain Ski Resort in Queensbury, said her business opened with 15 of its trails on Dec. 16 in part because the business invested heavily in quadrupling its snow blasting capabilities, upping its snow guns from 50 to 200.
"This is the most number of trails we've ever been able to open, due to our snowmaking ability," Montgomery said. "In the first 10 days of snowmaking we pumped out 42 million gallons of water worth of snowmaking, which is almost half of what we made all of last season."
Montgomery said her business is now going to focus on the northern side of its mountain to open up all of its 31 trails. She said the tubing park opened Saturday, and they are looking forward to a strong Christmas week.
"The rain never helps. It's never good after a rainstorm," Montgomery said. "But with the cool temperatures, people are going to start getting out skiing again."