The Mountain Times

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Whether to go, weather or not

Long drives to Vermont to ski were common when I lived in Connecticut and later New Jersey. We often left home with a green yard heading toward the Green Mountains.

But neither yard nor drive mattered. We were skiers.

As a teacher and ski club advisor at Scotch Plains Fanwood H.S. (NJ), I not only took trips with my husband to our Vermont vacation home, I also hired a coach and took 44 teenagers on ski trips. In those days, we planned and went.

Sometimes the kids would say, "Mrs. Lorentz, we're on the Thruway now and there's still no snow, are you sure we're going to ski?"

Then we would hit the Glens Falls area and see West Mountain lit up on the west side of the highway. I was afraid they would tilt the bus over as they all peered out the left-side windows. The excitement at seeing those snow-covered trails grew all the way to our destination.

Recently, I drove from our Vermont home of 34 years to Pico and realized that there was no snow along the way, even as I got fairly close to the resort. And I recalled those trips and how the kids and I had to become believers.

Skiing is Believing

Now, I rarely wonder if there is skiing because living at an elevation of 2200 feet, there is usually snow in my yard and most ski areas have higher elevations plus state of the art snowmaking and grooming. Not exactly like the 1960s and 1970s.

This year, my experience on the slopes has actually been better than in previous years when there was more snow. That's because I like having a trail to myself - apparently, lacking snow in their backyards, lots of people just didn't show up this season. So many days Pico felt like a private playground!

Last week, my son and his wife had their annual ski date with another couple at Killington. The 18-20 inches of snow received March 1 and 2 bode well. But then I saw the weather forecast. I was taking care of their son and wanted to get him to First Tracks on a nice day, so I made his reservation for Monday instead. The forecast had warned mixed precip for Saturday, and I felt so sorry for the two couples.

Guess what? The forecast was wrong.

They had "the best day, warm, sunshiny, no lift lines, and all that new groomed soft snow with no crowds. It was phenomenal," my no-nonsense daughter-in-law said.

Seems like there were many who, like me, didn't go because we had a choice and chose what we thought would be a "better weather" day.

Of Backyards and Weather

Sunday, the people turned out. Bonnie MacPherson, director of public relations at Okemo Mountain, noted that although the lodging was almost fully booked for the weekend, Saturday began with a touch of drizzle that soon gave way to glorious sunshine and a phenomenal day for the lighter crowd that went out. "Sunday they all showed up," she noted.

Rob Megnin, director of marketing and sales for Killington and Pico, noted a similar phenomenon. And that is part of the dilemma that resorts have faced this winter. 

Despite the major dump that brought people to the areas, the forecast of precipitation put off their slope time to a day of "better" weather.

Weather forecasts go along with the no-snow-in-my-backyard syndrome. When Boston and NYC are devoid of snow, there are skiers who simply don't go north, Megnin noted. If backyards are not white, fewer people are inspired to take a trip. Skiers will respond to reports of Vermont dumps, as happened March 1 and 2, but even then a forecast can keep many from going out, which baffles the resorts - and frustrates skiers who miss what turned out to be "the perfect day."

What is a skier to do?

Some have the luxury of following the powder and drive in a storm to get the freshies. Others watch the weather and plan trips for nice days. Still others, the diehards (or those who opperate best planning ahead), do as we did in days of old, they just plan and go.

Ironically, I, like those who so enjoyed the best Saturday of the season on March 3, owe my thanks to those fair-weather skiers who have left the trails devoid of crowds this year. We have had a most enjoyable season.

But then I got to thinking, what effect is the cause of my happiness having on the ski resorts?

Skier visits are down industry-wide. That includes Killington and Okemo, which make a ton of snow and have received many little snows as well as the major March 1-2 dump, which has made the last two weeks of skiing the best of the season.

MacPherson and Megnin both acknowledged that lift ticket revenues do play a role in capital improvements as the capital intensive businesses face ever escalating costs for insurance, fuel and labor to say nothing of buildings and lifts. As mega players, Okemo and Killington have kept the snowmaking going and provided coverage which allows them to recover after warm temperatures or rain.

MacPherson noted that hardcore skiers found good conditions and enjoyed a great year. The day skier visits were off among the occasional skiers and those who typically come out midweek - evidence of the 'backyard syndrome' at work.

Megnin says that since the snow started in March, Killington was close to or exceeded budget for its ensuing skier-visit days. He wonders where the people are when the skiing has been good all along?

Part of the answer, he fears, lies in skiers needing to see that blanket of white snow outside. 

Good Weather News

Yes, this season has been one weird wacky winter weatherwise.

But here is some good news.

What is normal for Vermont is for the weather to vary from year to year and month to month. The Vermont Weather Book by David M. Ludlum makes that abundantly clear. Senior Meteorologist Jeremy Davis who works for Weather Routing Inc. and is Look TV's On-Air Meteorologist (Channel 8 in Glens Falls region) agrees saying, "weird weather happens."

He said this year has seen a dearth of major snowstorms while experiencing unseasonably warm spells in traditionally cold months.

But he also notes that he did a 60-year study of temperatures and precipitation for the Glens Falls, NY, area and found that the average temperature was 0.1 degree cooler than prior years and average snowfall was up about three inches.

"Skiing is not going away. It's not true that every year we will get less and less snow and down to nothing," he stated.

"It is very rare to see two extreme years like last year (high snow and cool temps) and this year (low snow and high temps) back to back. The last time that occurred was the 1994-95 season (poor year) and 1995-96 (great year)," he noted. So, hopefully, this year's swing won't happen again for the next 10 to 15 years.

Variations are normal and extremes happen. Remember, at the end of March 1998 temperatures went from winter to 85 degrees in Vermont and Portland ME posted 89 degrees, its highest temp of the year!

He also noted that the advances in snowmaking technology mean that ski resorts will continue to make snow more efficiently at ever-higher temperatures.

Deals Now and for Next Year

Despite my love for trails to myself, I would prefer to have someone to ride the lift with midweek and, of course, for all the ski areas to continue to exist. So skiers, please tell your down-country friends that we do have snow and skiing, and we would be happy to share it with them. 

Also, areas are offering great deals on spring tickets like Killington's 4-play pass (any 4 days for $199) or the season passholder who can bring one or two skiers who pay $49 each for a ticket. Pico's 4-Play is $99.

Okemo has several deals as well, like Sunday 8 a.m. to 1:30 for $24-$35 depending on age, or a 12:30 to 4 p.m. ticket, $29 for all ages.

Some of the best deals can be found now, but do require some advanced planning.

Most of all, don't let this season's extreme weather confuse you - get next year's season pass now while the best prices are offered. The deals for kids and seniors are especially sweet.

When you think of all the multi-millions invested in these resorts, you really do get a bang for your lift ticket buck! Add the inflation factor, and it is cheaper to ski today than in the 1960s and 1970s! And with snowmaking and grooming, to say nothing of express quads, it's also a heck of a lot better!

Tagged: weather