Over the last couple of decades, the ski industry has waged a public relations campaign aimed at the “backyard syndrome.’’ The message: If you don’t see snow at home, you’ll find it on the slopes.
The only ingredient needed is cold weather. A week or so of snowmaking temperatures in the mountains can turn the toughest snow droughts into winter wonderlands.
But after a storm around Halloween turned much of New England white, the winter wimped out, and the Christmas vacation period found many ski resorts with only marginal terrain open, and business slower than usual for what traditionally is the kickoff to winter.
“We’re definitely in spin cycle right now,’’ said Tom Meyers, director of marketing at Wachusett Mountain in Princeton. “We’ll have a couple of good snowmaking days then a couple of warm days. We’re maintaining fine on about a third of our terrain, but we’re just not getting ahead and getting more open.’’
One of the busiest ski areas in the region, with multiple programs running day and night, Wachusett is at about one-third its capacity of day and evening skiers and riders, according to Meyers. And when the weather is too warm, the area is unable to groom the snow it has.
“Everybody seems to be running about a third, even the big guys,’’ said Meyers. “We all have about a third of our terrain and we’re getting about a third of [normal] business. Everybody’s just waiting for the weather to move into another gear, for that winter cycle to kick in.’’
Some who do turn up with skis and snowboards, Meyers said, are pleasantly surprised to find suitable conditions at all, especially after episodes such as Tuesday night’s heavy rain.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,’’ said Mary Cahill of Dorchester, who skied Wachusett yesterday with her two children. “We had been looking forward to getting out after Christmas, and the kids wanted to try it. You know, for how warm the weather’s been all fall, I don’t think this is so bad. At least we’re on skis and on snow.’’
Though the week after Christmas is important to the industry, largely because school vacations bring families, most areas now are relying on the forecast of cooler weather to recover in the next three months.
In New Hampshire, with its 18 Alpine ski areas, 245 of 795 trails were open as the week started. To Alice Pearce of Ski New Hampshire, that amount of snow-covered terrain is the result of newer, more effective snowmaking equipment.
“Many of our ski areas are equipped with very powerful snowmaking systems,’’ said Pearce. “They know how to maximize temperature and humidity to make just as much snow as possible. The fact that some of our areas have as much as 50 percent of their terrain open is nothing short of a miracle. It’s just incredible what snowmaking technology can do, so much more advanced than it was even five years ago.’’
But putting snow on the slopes and skiers and riders on the lifts are very different things, said Pearce, who indicated it’s too early to tell just what kind of hit the areas are taking because of the backyard syndrome.
“Even with us pushing out videos, the social media, it’s hard to counteract,’’ said Pearce. “Even with our modern communications, when there’s no snow on the ground in Boston it’s really hard to get people in the mood to go skiing. In Denver, when the grass is green people can still look over and see the Front Range [of the Rockies] covered in snow, but unfortunately we don’t have anything like that in New England.
“So we just try to keep getting the message out there. Will we catch the beginner/intermediate skier? Probably not. But we hope the passionate skier will take a look at the slopes and realize there really is snow up there.’’
Andrew Brett and his friends possibly fit that description. The 24-year-old Manchester, N.H., native said he and his friends had planned to ski Loon in Lincoln, N.H., this week no matter what the conditions, and they were pleased to take advantage of discounted lift tickets.
“You figure they start making snow in November and so even with warm weather they get something on the ground,’’ he said. “It’s not great, but we bring our rock [old] skis up and just deal with it. It’s better than nothing.’’
According to Herb Stevens, a.k.a. the Skiing Weatherman, this season, if not a record-breaker for lack of natural snow, has still been abnormal.
“This has been the worst Christmas vacation in terms of quality and quantity of snow - coast to coast - we’ve seen in over 20 years,’’ he said. “If you want to count the number of resorts around the country that are in full operation, I don’t think you’ll need more than one hand.’’
The most important factor in producing natural snow or weather cold enough to make it is the atmospheric blocking of cold air over the North Atlantic, a feature that has produced ample snow the last two seasons.
“You have to get an atmospheric blocking pattern of some magnitude up toward Greenland,’’ said Stevens. “This year there has been an absolute lack of blocking, and if you get a cold shot, there’s nothing to stop it from moving right off the continent and out into the Atlantic. That’s why all of our cold shots so far have been so brief and fleeting. That makes it hard for snowmakers to get a consistent amount of time to get snow on the trails.’’
But all is not lost, according to Stevens.
“In the next week or so [the changes] are going to be fairly dramatic,’’ he said. “I think next week, the eastern United States is going to experience a freeze all the way to Florida. That will give the snowmakers their biggest opportunity so far this year, a really solid window.
“When you get a big eastern trough, the odds are favorable that you’ll get a significant snow event. But I’m not predicting that yet.’’