Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on FlatheadBeacon.com.
While the ski industry in northwest Montana employs many people, there is only one who decides when the ski season begins and she doesn’t answer to anybody: Mother Nature. And while her schedule may not be totally in sync with the executives at Whitefish Mountain Resort, it’s not too far off either. Resort officials delayed their planned Dec. 6 opening date due to lack of snow, but – as of this writing – planned to open Tuesday of this week, with skiing on the north face of Big Mountain, off of Chair 7.
For local skiers and riders, the delay has been unwelcome, but not exactly unexpected after weeks of mild weather. Kalispell Airport reported its first measurable snowfall – a half-inch – on Dec. 2. That’s the latest measurable snowfall on record for Kalispell since 1953, according to Dan Zumpfe, a meteorologist for the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s Missoula office.
“Historically speaking, this is starting out not very snowy and it’s also fairly warm,” Zumpfe said.
But just because the ski season might be getting off to a late start, doesn’t mean a weak winter is on the way. For the rest of December, the NOAA’s climate prediction center calls for above normal precipitation across Montana, with equal chances of temperatures either below or above average – which means the precipitation could take the form of rain or snow. The forecast through February is even less clear.
Last winter’s heavy snowfall – which created a boon for snow sports and accumulated enough snowpack to help stave off summer wildfires – was the result of a “La Niña” weather trend: cold ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific that create colder, wetter winters in the northwest United States. “El Niño” conditions have the opposite effect, but this winter looks as though it will fall right down the middle.
“Sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific are not too far from average,” Zumpfe said, adding that with such neutral weather, it’s nearly impossible to make accurate long-term predictions about how much snowfall this region is likely to receive.
And Public Relations Manager Donnie Clapp can live with that.
“On average years, we have some of the best and most consistent skiing in the U.S.,” he said. “We’re off to a late start – that’s certainly not unprecedented.”
But snowfall isn’t the only type of condition that could impact this year’s ski season. With a recession and deep economic uncertainty settling in, the question looms as to whether Americans will be willing to spend money on ski vacations.
According to Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, even in a lagging economy, ski resorts thrive as long as the snow dumps. In such dismal financial times, skiers are apparently unable to suppress their irrational exuberance so long as the powder is deep.
“At the end of the day, what we know is that good snow trumps a bad economy,” Berry said. “Lousy snow, even in a great economy, means a downturn for the ski industry.”
Berry points to recent years when the economy was in a slump, like the 2000-2001 season, as one in which the total number of skier visits in the U.S. leaped from 52 million to 57 million, according to data provided by the NSAA.
In recent years, the ski industry has seen slow, but steady growth, and last season’s heavy snow gave it a boost, with a record 60.5 million skier visits nationwide, up from 55 million visits the previous winter. The Rocky Mountain region – which includes Montana, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – saw 21.3 million skier visits, another record, last season, up from 20.8 million the previous year.
Figures from the NSAA also indicate the number of skiers and riders may be declining slightly, but those people are skiing and snowboarding more. In the 2005-2006 season, 6.9 million downhill skiers hit the slopes nationally, but only 11.9 percent skied 20 days or more. Last winter, 5.5 million skiers came out, but 24.8 percent skied 20 days or more. The number of snowboarders declined slightly last winter, to 5.1 million from 5.2 million the previous year, and 32 percent rode 10 days or more.
Resorts in Colorado and the northeast are off to a strong start with early snow, Berry said, but he sees some “softness” in reservations for resorts farther West through the holiday break, due mainly to the dry conditions. One big factor the ski industry has in its favor this season is the dropping cost of fuel, making travel more affordable for destination resorts in the west. But the overwhelming motivational factor for tourists on the fence about a ski vacation remains snowfall.
“It’s pretty important we get a significantly strong storm to create buzz in the next two weeks,” Berry added. “It will get phones ringing for January and February.”
Closer to home, at Blacktail Mountain in Lakeside, season pass sales are strong and Steve Spencer, general manager and co-owner of the ski area, anticipates being open by Christmas at the latest. Because the parking lot and lodge are located at the top of the area, Blacktail can open just the top half of its terrain if necessary.
“I’m not panicking,” Spencer said. “It won’t take much to get us going.”
At Whitefish Resort, Clapp is optimistic heading into the season, with another record-breaking year of season pass sales – approximately 7,000 so far. The resort also sold the most season passes ever in a single day, about 1,200 passes on Sept. 30, the last day before the price increased. Lodging reservations, so far, are also in line with the forecasts worked out by resort executives several months ago – before the economy plunged.
“We are tracking pretty close to budget right now which is great, and pretty heartening in this economic climate,” Clapp said. “We’re within 5 percent of where we expected to be before all this started, so that’s really encouraging.”
The resort is also counting on the steady increase it has enjoyed in recent years from tourists taking the train from Seattle, Portland and Minnesota to ski in Whitefish. And Clapp is betting that the relatively low cost of lift tickets for the amount of terrain on offer at Whitefish Resort could even work in its favor during a season where skiers may be pinching pennies.
“We hope that people are still going to want to go on ski vacations, but they’re going to look a little bit harder at comparing ski resorts and how much they cost,” Clapp said. “I feel like people who ski every year love skiing and are going to find a way to do it.”