It may not have been the best year ever. But the 2018-'19 season sure started out that way.
It was, after all, only Oct. 18 when Vermont’s Killington Mountain Resort became the first resort in the Northeast to open for skiing and riding, followed one day later by Sunday River in Maine. The opening was three weeks earlier than Killington’s first day of operation in 2017, and the second-earliest date that Sunday River had ever started its season.
Then, it got better.
The days post-Thanksgiving brought a feast of snow to the mountains in northern New England, delivering as much as two feet of snow in some areas. That meant some premium, mid-winter conditions at a time when local skiers and riders are more prone to getting their turns in on a thin ribbon of machine-made snow.
In fact, it was Nov. 26 when New England Cable News meteorologist Tim Kelley found himself in what he called bottomless powder at Sugarbush in Vermont, standing next to a snow-covered moose in the woods on Castlerock Peak.
“I said, ‘I don’t care if I don’t ski another day this winter, that was the best ski day I’ve ever had,’” Kelley said. “Last year, I declared it memorable in November. But most years you’re not saying that until the second half of the winter.”
By Dec. 1, about 65 percent of Vermont’s lift-serviced alpine terrain was already open, according to Ski Vermont. The trade group reported that the average for that date over the previous 13 seasons was just over 8 percent.
“I think most memorable is how early it started,” said Kelley, an avid skier. “It was really snowy, but then it was so fickle.”
While winter was almost non-existent in southern New England in terms of snowfall, storms consistently visited the mountains in the north. But almost every one of them went like this, according to Kelley: snow, to rain to snow, to subzero wind chill. Still though, it wasn’t as bad as two winters ago, when there was so much freezing rain that skiers and boarders at times found it impossible to dip into the woods, with trees heavily coated with ice.
“We had great base material, as they say, and there was plenty of snow, but there was also plenty of ice,” Kelley said. “But the snowpack was so good and the winter was just cold enough that it just lasted.”
By the end of March, 92 percent of Vermont’s terrain was still open, the highest percentage for that period since the 2012-'13 season. Not surprisingly it was Killington, known for its late-season push each year, that went the longest of anyone else in the East, finally stopping the lifts on June 2, the 211th day of its season.
The winter was even on pace, a couple times, to match the snow stake record (149 inches) set during the winter of 1968-'69 atop Vermont’s Mount Mansfield. It hit a high point of 124 inches on March 23. Recorded snow depths atop the highest peak in Vermont are available as far back as 1954-'55.
"I recall it being a really good, snowy winter,” Kelley said. “With ice.”
It was also a season noted for storms that coincided with the ski industry’s pivotal holiday periods. In January, MLK weekend was highlighted by two feet of snow in some areas, while more than a foot came in time for February break.
According to numbers provided by Ski Vermont, Green Mountain ski areas saw an increase in skier and rider visits of 5.2 percent over the previous winter. The 4.2 million total skier and rider visits were the most since the 2014-'15 season and 1.2 percent higher than the 10-year average. In New Hampshire, overall total winter visits (including alpine skiing, cross country skiing, and tubing visits) during the 2018-'19 season were up year-over-year by 5 percent, according to Ski New Hampshire. The biggest gainer was snow tubing, which posted an increase of 17 percent compared to 2018. Total ski area visits were about even with the 10-year average in the Granite State.
In all, there were about 12.7 million skier and rider visits in the Northeast, according to the National Ski Areas Association. That’s the fourth-best total on record for the region, and the best since 13.3 million visits in 2014-'15.
The 2019-'20 season hasn’t gotten off to a similar, promising start. That’s OK, as far as Kelley is concerned.
“When winter starts early, you’re often nervous because there’s usually a warm rebound and things get quiet or too warm,” he said. “I’m not happy when it snows in October because, historically, that means it’s going to be a bad winter. Usually when you get a lot of snow in October, it’s not a good sign.”
What is a good sign is the amount of snow the western United States has seen this fall. Significant snowfall has buried some areas with two to four feet in the Northwest and Canada, similar to a pattern that occurred last season at this time.
“So that’s great for us in a way,” Kelley said. “If you put all that snow on the mountains west, it usually spreads east. The jet stream kind of digs in our direction.”
Until then, skiers and riders wait in their annual plea of hoping for the best year ever.