LINCOLN, N.H. — Used to be, New England winters were big snow years or low snow years — but never no snow years. The New England skier was not raised to consider snow an unreliable occurrence.
But after a winter with little more than trace amounts of snow, which followed a winter of record snowfalls, it is hard to have clear expectations as ski season begins.
“At this point, I’ve learned to have no expectations,” Rich Stanley said as he prepared to board the gondola at Loon Mountain on Saturday with some buddies from Sandown, N.H. “Except that the bar is open.”
This weekend is the second of the season at the resort, and crowds were solid though snow had yet to leave any mark in the White Mountains. Just a fraction of the trails were open, little slivers of man-made white on bare, brown hills.
Many of the early-season skiers — typically the diehards, the season-pass crowd — had skied a lot last year regardless of snowfalls that rarely filled in the woods along the trails.
Almaisa Yanoff, who had won a season pass in a snowboarding competition at Pat’s Peak, said she rode almost every day last year and it was fantastic, especially with the lack of crowds.
“Where most people complained, I went almost every day,” said the 34-year-old from Concord, N.H.
For 2012-13, Yanoff was operating on a revenge theory of weather, the idea that there was payback on its way, and she predicted a stronger showing of the white stuff.
“We’re going to get absolutely slammed,” she said. “We’re going to get buried and have to snowmobile here.”
But although many said fresh powder from above would be best, what they wanted to talk about was the snow-making abilities of modern ski resorts.
“Twenty years ago, it would have been horrible,” said Paul Abel of Rockport, who has already skied a couple times at Loon this season. “But snowmaking is nothing like it used to be.”
The National Ski Areas Association said that last winter had the worst attendance numbers in 20 years and the least amount of snowfall during that period.
“If my boyfriend hadn’t dragged me, I wouldn’t have gone at all last year,” Rebecca Talbot said as she took a break, sitting in an Adirondack chair around noon Saturday at the base of the slopes.
In Vernon, Conn., where she lives, she was suffering from what the ski industry calls the “back yard effect,” which is the conviction people get when they see no snow outside at home, that there must be no snow on the mountains.
‘At this point, I’ve learned to have no expectations. Except that the bar is open.’
She enjoyed the skiing last year, she said, but she never really got the “winter” feeling.
“You’re not supposed to see all this ground around you,” she said, looking up the brown mountain.
The industry is hoping that last year’s 15 percent nationwide decline in attendance will mean benefits from pent-up demand this year, said Troy Hawks, a spokesman for the National Ski Areas Association.
“In the large metropolitan areas of the Northeast, it was difficult just getting people in the mood to ski,” he said. “It was hard to imagine conditions would be good at the ski areas. But they’ve waited patiently all summer long, and we’re looking at the season with the optimism that last year was out of the norm.”
Joe Pascone, a 17-year-oldfrom Connecticut whose family has a condo at Loon, said the strangest feeling heading into this season was the fear that warmer, snow-free winters might not be aberrations.
“The locals here depend upon snow for their livelihood,” he said, “and part of the reason they live here is to ski, and what’s scary is to see global warming firsthand, as a real, tangible idea.”
The really impressive storm that hit New England ski country last year was Hurricane Irene, which wreaked havoc in Vermont and resulted in the raging waters of the Pemigewasset River knocking out the main bridge that led from the Kancamagus Highway into the Loon ski area.
But a temporary bridge is open, the snow makers are raging, and the weather is getting chillier. Mid-week, the forecast looks good: a decent storm on the way, a couple inches of snowfall predicted — the kind of thing they used to call a regular occurrence.Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.