Across the West, skiers and winter resort operators pine for a blizzard like the one that blanketed the Northeast this week. A number of resorts in California, Oregon and Washington have had to temporarily or permanently suspend operations this season due to low snowpack. Things are so topsy-turvy, trail groomers in Anchorage, Alaska, had to resort to snowmaking to be able to open in time for the winter holidays.
"They don't need it in Cape Cod. They need it here in Washington," Kevin McCarthy, general manager of White Pass Ski Area, says with a chuckle.
The snowpack at his resort in Washington State's Cascade Mountain Range is about 25 percent of normal, McCarthy says, a common predicament this winter up and down the West Coast. For some resorts, this is the second or third tough year in a row. Unreliable winter weather is increasingly forcing ski areas to rely on expensive snowmaking machines to remain viable.
"For three weeks we made snow, and it has been a lifesaver, tying the lower area to the upper mountain, which has enough natural snow to operate," McCarthy says.
A stretch of unusually balmy weather caused headline writers and outdoor enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest to nickname the normally snowy month of January "Juneuary." Skiers at White Pass, where the terrain ranges from 4,500 to 6,500 feet elevation, had to look out for rocks, ice sheets and brown patches as they navigated the lower slopes.
But snowmaking machines aren't a cure-all. The White Pass Ski Area machines were shut down this week because it was too warm for them to work.
Still, McCarthy credits his small collection of "snow guns" for his ability to open on time and stay open. "Every time we go by these, we want to give them a hug," McCarthy says.
Snowmaking systems are not new in the ski industry. Resorts in the Midwest and East have relied on snowmaking for decades. Farther West there are more holdouts.
"The challenges of the weather, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, are causing the resorts to rethink their reliance only on natural snow," says Joe VanderKelen, president of SMI Snowmakers. The Michigan-based company is one of the biggest purveyors of snowmaking equipment and services.
"A lot of folks that said, 'Hey Joe, you're a nice guy, but jeez, we'll never have snowmaking at our mountain because you know we actually have too much snow' are now circling back," VanderKelen says.
Resort owners recognize the threat of climate change, because they're seeing it, VanderKelen says. Spring now arrives more than two weeks earlier in the Lake Tahoe resort region than it did 50 years ago, according to a NASA study cited by the industry group Protect Our Winters.
VanderKelen says he tells resort operators that snowmaking gives them a chance to weatherproof their businesses. "There are literally over 100 resorts in North America that would have gone out of business without snowmaking, maybe 200," he says.
Customers may spend from $50,000 for a single snow gun and pumping station to $50 million to bring snow to an international resort such as Whistler in British Columbia, according to VanderKelen. And the expenses are ongoing. Ski industry consultant Dave Belin of RRC Associates in Boulder, Colorado, says the cost of water, energy use and labor make snowmaking a pricey proposition.
"It really comes down to: Can you operate without it?" Belin says. "Most ski areas have decided they need it to maintain their operations from the beginning of the season all the way through to the end of the season."
Water availability and scarcity present additional challenges, especially for ski areas in drought-stricken parts of the West. In southern Oregon, Mount Ashland Ski Area management say they have looked into snowmaking systems to augment the snowpack at their oft-closed slopes. But they found the equipment too costly and say the ski area lacks an adequate water source to create manmade snow.
"There are some big hurdles," says John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association. "Not only do you have to have water, you have to have low temps and low humidity" to make snow.