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Ski Industry Hopes to Catch a Cold

Winter, That Is, as Snowmaking Capabilities Reduce Dependence on Natural Flakes

  • Neill Clark shelves a pair of boots at Henderson’s Ski and Snowboard on Friday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Neill Clark shelves a pair of boots at Henderson’s Ski and Snowboard on Friday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Alex Binzen, 14, of Strafford, tries on a pair of snowboard boots at Henderson’s Ski and Snowboard in Quechee on Friday. Alex was leasing boots and a board so he could ski with his afterschool program at the Dartmouth Skiway and on a season pass at Pico. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Alex Binzen, 14, of Strafford, tries on a pair of snowboard boots at Henderson’s Ski and Snowboard in Quechee on Friday. Alex was leasing boots and a board so he could ski with his afterschool program at the Dartmouth Skiway and on a season pass at Pico. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Rob Pelletier, left, and Neill Clark, of Henderson’s Ski and Snowboard in Quechee, work through an order mounting bindings on skis and snowboards on Friday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Rob Pelletier, left, and Neill Clark, of Henderson’s Ski and Snowboard in Quechee, work through an order mounting bindings on skis and snowboards on Friday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Neill Clark shelves a pair of boots at Henderson’s Ski and Snowboard on Friday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Alex Binzen, 14, of Strafford, tries on a pair of snowboard boots at Henderson’s Ski and Snowboard in Quechee on Friday. Alex was leasing boots and a board so he could ski with his afterschool program at the Dartmouth Skiway and on a season pass at Pico. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Rob Pelletier, left, and Neill Clark, of Henderson’s Ski and Snowboard in Quechee, work through an order mounting bindings on skis and snowboards on Friday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Lebanon — After dismal season last year, the ski industry in Vermont and New Hampshire are looking to the skies for snow and to the thermometer for low temperatures.

“We’d love to have a lot of snow, but what we really need is cold temperatures so we can blow snow. Every ski resort in the country wants that,” Whaleback Mountain co-owner and former Olympic skier Evan Dybvig said last week.

If temperatures stay below 20 degrees or spend a significant part of the day in the 20-degree range this time of year, the resorts can make enough snow to build up a good base that will remain on the ground for the rest of the season, Dybvig said, noting that Whaleback is scheduled to open on Dec. 22. “We’re making snow now. We have piles of snow, and we hope to be about 70 percent open.”

Last year, the area was hit with an early blanket of snow before the resorts opened. Then temperatures warmed in November and December, and the base melted. The rest of the year offered little snow and warmer than average temperatures. As a result, the number of Alpine skiers and snowboarders dropped by 13.4 percent from the 10-year average in New Hampshire and by 5 percent in Vermont, where the 3.9 million skiers who visited the slopes were 11 percent fewer than the record 2010-2011 season. Skiers in New Hampshire dropped last year from 2.4 million in 2010-11 season to 1.9 million, state officials said.

Skiers spend billions of dollars in both states with about 12 percent going to the resorts and the remaining 88 percent going to such visitor-related expenses as lodging, restaurants, gas, tolls, retail and other items, state figures show.

Mount Sunapee Resort opened on Nov. 30, a little earlier than the resort’s average of Dec. 4, said Bruce McCloy, the area’s director of marketing and sales.

“By Christmas, we think we’ll have all 25 acres from edge to edge with three feet of snow,” he said. “We’re having a good start to the season, and that’s terrific after the lousy year last year. We need to get a long stretch of cold temperatures and some snow south of here in the Boston area.”

When it snows in the cities to the south of New Hampshire, Sunapee sees a 25 to 30 percent jump in skiiers. “It doesn’t matter what’s happening up here, if it’s snowing in Boston, people want to go skiing,” McCloy said.

Resorts in both states, including Sunapee, Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow, Vt., and Killington Resort near Rutland are seeing record early openings, which officials are attributing not only to low temperatures but also to the investments made in upgrading to new equipment with the latest technology that allows high quality snow to be made at temperatures just below freezing mark with about 25 percent of the costs, representatives said.

Killington got off to one of its earliest starts, opening for pass-holders in mid-October and for the season on Nov. 5. Okemo, which opened on Nov. 8, had the fourth-earliest opening in its 57-year-history and the earliest start date since 2003, said Bonnie MacPherson, Okemo’s director of public relations.

“We’re shaping up to have one of our strongest seasons on record. Our bookings are strong and our rooms and lodgings are filling up,” she said.

“Our snowmaking crews are emerging as the superheroes. They are really making a difference, and this new equipment is really helping,” she said.

After last year, people are taking a wait-and-see attitude on buying new ski equipment, said Brad Hastings, part owner and director of winter sports at Golf and Ski Warehouse in West Lebanon. “We’re seeing the really enthusiastic skiers come in, and if we get a little snow, I think people will be bursting at the seems to get out there,” he said. “It’s hard to get people fired up when they have green grass in their backyards.”

The Dartmouth Skiway is making snow in anticipation of an opening this coming Saturday, said General Manager Doug Holler.

“It’s all about the weather, but I’m not sure this year is much different than past years. We’d like to have a lot of snow, but if we have to make snow, we’ll be all right,” Holler said.

Arrowhead Recreation Area in Claremont is looking for volunteers to help clearing brush from the slopes and to paint the lodge in anticipation of a Dec. 31 opening, a telephone recording at the area says.

“Every year is critical for Whaleback, but after last year, this season is particularly critical,” Dybvig said. “But all our equipment is working, our season passes are up and if we get sustained temperatures below 20 degrees, we’ll have a good foundation and a good season.”

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.