Scant snowy slopes


Published: Friday, January 12, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 10:52 p.m.

Ghent, W. Va.

Brian Rogers and other members of his church group basked in their perfect timing — a rare snowfall combined with a nonexistent midweek crowd that turned Winterplace Ski Resort into their personal playground.

The signs of a dismal season were sprinkled throughout this southern West Virginia resort. Plenty of parking, plenty of elbow room on the lifts and the few slopes that were open. The cafeteria chairs were turned over as a worker swept the floor instead of serving lunch. Down the road, with stocked shelves and no customers, two ski shop workers sat idly behind the counters.

A 5-inch snowfall arrived for the final day of skiing Wednesday for the 15 members of the group from Bowling Green, Ky.

"No lines. No wait. Just jump on and go," Rogers said.

Good for skiers. Bad for business.

While many western U.S. ski resorts are thriving with packed powder measuring in feet, not inches, resorts back East are hoping to turn a terrible season around. Dozens of resorts remain closed from Iowa to Alabama and on up to Maine. Where snowmaking has occurred, slopes were clogged with frozen, granular snow — stuff not conducive to fun skiing — or sat unused as officials look skyward for help and turned to ingenuity, layoffs and discounts to entice skiers.

A cold snap this week gave Eastern resorts a fleeting hope of covering their barren slopes in time for one of the biggest weekends — the three-day Martin Luther King holiday. But the chill didn't last nearly long enough to build up much of a snowpack before spring-like temperatures return for the weekend.

"If winter ever arrives, they can finish out the rest of the season. It will be far from a banner season, but they can position themselves to bridge over to the next season. The critical part is the next eight weeks," said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, based in Lakewood, Colo.

Industry trade groups didn't have estimates on potential losses. Berry said stories he heard at a recent meeting with Eastern resort representatives were "all over the place."

In ski-crazy Vermont, four resorts and 17 cross-country ski centers were temporarily closed Thursday, and none of the 19 open resorts had more than half their trails open.

Mad River Glen in Waitsfield, Vt., closed Monday and laid off dozens of workers. After 2 to 4 inches of snow fell Tuesday night, the resort vowed to reopen for the holiday weekend.

At Seven Springs, Pa., more than 530 truckloads of snow were recently moved to high-traffic areas and officials postponed the debut of an 18-foot-high half pipe at the resort's snowboard park.

"You need a lot of snow to carve that pipe," said resort spokesman Bob Duppstadt Jr.

Colorado's resorts were running close to full capacity, thanks to three storms in as many weeks. Sales of ski vacations were "very strong," said Molly Cuffe, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Ski Country USA.

"Those who were already skiing extended their vacations by a day or two," she said.

In Canada, ski resorts across the province of Ontario have had to improvise, blowing manmade snow across their ski slopes. The neighboring French-speaking province of Quebec is faring better, since temperatures there are typically colder, and ski resorts are reporting good conditions.

In Western Canada, however, freezing temperatures are creating so much snow that some resorts are having to deal with avalanche warnings.

Back East, the problems trickle down to the businesses that feed on the resorts.

Mike Owen owns four Ski Barn equipment rental shops in West Virginia and Virginia. Some are doing better than others, depending on weather patterns and elevation.

At the shop outside of Snowshoe, W.Va., "we're actually having a pretty good turnout," Owen said.

Outside of Winterplace, the parking lots were empty at a hotel, a gas station and a few ski shops. But changes were on the horizon.

"It's going to get busy here this weekend regardless," said Ben Monast, general manager at the Ski Shop.

Some resorts that had been shut down for much of the past month reopened at midweek. Machines at Mount Brighton northwest of Detroit spit out artificial snow for two straight days, but the 15-inch snow base may not hold up with rain forecast on Friday.

"If we have too many more winters like this, there won't be a Mount Brighton," said Ryan Wilson, who works at a nearby ski shop in Brighton, Mich.

When Mount Brighton was inactive, Wilson used the Internet to sell ski equipment nationwide, particularly in the west.

Meanwhile, an Aspen-Colo.-based Web site is offering a $50 per-person discount on vacation packages of four nights or more if at least one traveler holds a season pass to a resort where lift service is under half capacity.

Other efforts to lure skiers include extending early-season rates at Winterplace and offering reduced lodging rates at Canaan Valley in Davis, W.Va., for the upcoming holiday weekend, when temperatures were expected to reach the mid-50s in some areas. Operators say many skiers are pushing back their reservations to later in the season.

Even when it's not snowing, some Eastern operators believe the biggest challenge isn't the weather, but changing public attitudes — coaxing skiers to buy winter coats, goggles, gloves — and lift tickets.

"It's getting the people in the cities to think about winter. It's the mind-set (and) letting people know the skiing is there," said Alex Kaufman, spokesman for Maine's Sunday River resort, which caters to folks from as far away as Boston and Providence, R.I. The resort dumped two truckloads of snow and built rails and jumps outside a Portland, Me., snowboard shop Thursday, when temperatures dropped to 25 degrees, as a way to attract skiers.

While operators agree this has been the most unusual start to winter they've experienced, there's far too much time and equipment invested to give up.

"We've got a lot of winter left," said Terry Pfeiffer, Winterplace's president. "We're making lots of snow. All the long-range forecasters are saying we're getting a nice cold burst. So, hey, we're still in the game."

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