More than most, local ski resorts are coming to rue that old adage: If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait five minutes.
After experiencing ideal conditions that allowed many New England resorts to open early this ski season, operators are looking at a nightmare scenario: a wide band of rain and sleet that could wash away much of the natural and artificial bounty covering their slopes just as families pack their bags and boots and plan to head north for the holiday break.
“It’s going to rain everywhere,” lamented avid skier and New England Cable News meteorologist Tim Kelley. “It just happens to be three or four of the busiest days for the resorts.”
And it could get worse: Depending on the storm track and shifting temperatures, some ski areas may even be hit with a ice storm, which can down trees and power lines and require days, if not weeks, of cleanup.
While the forecast, which includes rain and a thaw in the days leading up to the Christmas-New Year’s holiday, probably won’t change the plans for skiers and riders who booked in advance, many skiers are now booking their vacations later than ever. So if the forecast proves accurate, the ski areas may not even know how much business the change in weather costs them.
That has resorts even more grateful for the combination of sustained cold weather and timely snowfall that hit the New England mountains beginning in November. That allowed resorts to begin snowmaking operations early, which quickly paid off with a surge of skiers — as much as a 30 percent increase above business compared to last year.
“We’re off to one of the best starts we’ve had in years,” said Karl Stone, marketing director for the trade group Ski New Hampshire. “We were due.”
In Massachusetts, Nashoba Valley in Westford had 17 trails open as of late last week — the most this early in the season in the ski area’s 50-year history.
“For us to have this much snow in December is a really nice present,” Nashoba’s marketing and group sales director Pam Fletcher said. “We’re in great shape right now.”
In Vermont, the early season cold enabled enough snowmaking that the state boasted 11 ski areas open the weekend before Thanksgiving. It was the first time in the state’s history that so many resorts were open before December.
Parker Riehle, president of the trade group Ski Vermont, said the early cold temperatures were especially crucial because New England mountains cannot rely on natural snow. “We definitely appreciate it, both from saving money in operations and marketing. There’s no better marketing than a natural snowfall throughout New England.”
In Maine, Sunday River has been open since Oct. 26, thanks in large part to its vast snowmaking capability. Still, it is understood that it is the natural snow that falls in other areas of New England that typically persuades Boston-area skiers and riders to make the trip north.
“We generally put $2.5 million into our snowmaking each winter, so anytime it snows in the backyard of our market, that definitely helps drive people to our resort,” said Darcy Morse, Sunday River’s director of communications.
“We’re going into a holiday period with more open terrain we typically have at this time of year. Everything from season passes to lodging is up over last year. People are pretty excited about the season to come.”
At Vermont’s Killington Mountain Resort, which has been open for two months now, sales are up 9.5 percent overall compared a year ago. That includes season passes, day tickets, lessons, and lodging. The mountain also planned to be fully operational this weekend.
“We’re very happy with the amount of terrain we have open,” spokesman Michael Joseph said. “It definitely always helps you open a lot of terrain faster, but our snowmakers are great, and that’s why we’ve been skiing on terrain for almost 60 days now.”
But even ski areas without strong snowmaking capability have seen early season success. As of late this past week, Mad River Glen, which opened for the season last week, had skiing on nearly all its terrain, despite not possessing the firepower of snowmaking that the likes of Okemo, Mount Snow, and Bretton Woods can brag about.
“We went from being closed to 100 percent open,” said Eric Friedman, Mad River Glen’s marketing director. “We’re really, really excited to be open so far before Christmas.”
So while man-made snow allows the resorts to market themselves as open, there is still nothing that draws skiers and riders like natural snow. And now the advent of social media provides real-time conditions and weather reports in a way no resort mountain snow statement could as recently as a decade ago.
With a popular Twitter presence himself (@SurfSkiWxMan) Kelley and other forecasters have handy tools ready to ease the angst that might be rising in ski towns this weekend.
“I totally see more snowstorms coming before the new year,” Kelley said. “It’s looking good for winter still.”