How bad was it?
The lack of snowfall and warm temperatures that plagued the 2015-16 ski season may have affected New England ski resorts to varying degrees.
But by all accounts, the season was a dud.
“I’m hoping that everybody’s memory is short,” Wachusett spokesperson Tom Myers said, estimating that the Princeton ski resort saw a 20 percent decrease in skier visits last season. “It could have been much worse, which is hard to imagine.”
According to the National Weather Service, it was the warmest winter on record for a host of New England cities, including Burlington, Vt., Concord, N.H., and Providence. It was the second-warmest winter recorded for Boston.
Those temperatures translated to a lack of natural snowfall across the map. Wachusett received a mere 28 inches last season, one year after a record snowfall of 143 inches. Vermont’s Killington Mountain Resort, which welcomes an average of 250 inches each season, had only 81 inches to play with.
Mad River Glen, which greatly relies on natural snowfall with only limited snow making available at the co-operatively-owned ski area, received 120 inches last season, far below the 250 inches the Waitsfield, Vt., property can expect to receive in an average season. In Maine, Sunday River Resort received 60 inches, the lowest number the Newry ski area has ever recorded. It normally receives an average of 167 inches per season.
“It was not the best year all the way around,” Bretton Woods Resort spokesperson Craig Clemmer said. “We’re just writing that season off with regards to the amount of natural snow that we got.”
There’s no surprise that the conditions translated to a weaker business for the industry. According to the National Ski Areas Association, a trade association that represents 313 alpine resorts nationwide, the Northeast region, which includes all of New England and New York, saw an estimated 9.3 million skier and snowboarder visits during the 2015-16 season. That is the lowest number recorded in 35 years, and a drastic decrease from the estimated 13.3 million visits Northeast resorts welcomed in 2014-15.
“Last year was the anomaly,” Clemmer said. “That was the once in every 25 years ski season. But we still have the ability to make snow and create our own destiny with regards to that.”
The reliance on snow making in fickle New England is nothing new, but improvements in each resort’s process might help curb anxiety among skiers and riders and generate optimism instead.
“We’re going to make winter regardless of what Mother Nature hands us,” Sunday River spokesperson Darcy Morse said. “We certainly hope that we get more natural snow, but I think that in times when Mother Nature tests what we can do, we had a really great season regardless of the lack of snow.”
Sunday River has invested more than $7 million in its snow-making system since 2007, and it now includes more than 2,000 snow guns. The resort’s ability to make snow allowed it to remain open last season from October until April, this despite the troubles that other resorts across the region faced.
Elsewhere in Maine, the outlook wasn’t as rosy. Saddleback Mountain, in Rangeley, sat dormant for the entire season after owners were unable to raise $3 million to finance a new chairlift. As ski season approached, Bill and Irene Berry reported they were close to a sale of the property, but one never materialized. But just when it seemed likely that Saddleback would remain closed for a second-straight season, a group of nonprofit investors announced last month that it had reached a verbal agreement with the Berrys to purchase the ski area and the land surrounding it. There’s still no indication, however, as to whether the lifts will run this winter.
A similar situation nearly occurred in Vermont, where cash-strapped Magic Mountain managed to remain open only for a couple of months last season. The Londonderry ski area faced desperate need for improved snow making and lift repair when SKI MAGIC LLC (a Vermont-based limited liability company) signed a purchase and sale agreement in August.
“This place probably would not have opened up this year,” president of the new ownership, Geoff Hathaway said. “That’s how dire things were.”
Magic is often lauded for its throwback terrain, including skiing in the woods that depends on the benefit of natural snow. But Hathaway said the impetus for snow making also needs to be a priority at the ski area. The new ownership will be making immediate improvements to its process, shooting to have 50 percent of its trails covered in the coming years. Last year, that number was only about 10 percent.
“This winter was terrible throughout New England, and that kind of laid bare more of the issues that Magic had in terms of its infrastructure, snow making in particular,” he said.
The weather opened eyes elsewhere as well, of course, including Wachusett, which is implementing a new snow-making system in the wake of what it experienced last season.
“We didn’t have that opportunity to ramp things up and get things going as quickly as we normally do,” Myers said. “It’s kind of the way things are in New England. But this new snow-making project will certainly allow us to make up.”
The $2 million improvements will double the mountain’s pumping capacity from 4,000 to 8,000 gallons per minute, and allow snow makers to make snow faster with cold weather.
“The investment in snow making will help put at ease those who remember,” Myers said. “But skiers know that ski areas make snow. And we’re just fortunate that we make more of it than most relative to our size, and as a result can be more confident in what we offer.”
But no matter how much snow ski areas are able to make at any given time, the consistency and dependability of machine-made snow still won’t compare to the excitement and experience that a winter snowstorm can bring.
“There’s no doubt about it, we need natural snow,”: Hathaway said. “That’s what people want. They want their powder days, they want their tree skiing, they want great trails that ski so much better when there’s good, natural snow. But on the other hand they also want more variety, and more trails that they can go down — expert trails, intermediate trails, beginner trails, whatever — when Mother Nature doesn’t deliver.”
That sets the urgency for resorts to face their annual need to convince the public that there is snow on the hill, even if it might not be in their backyards.
“The challenges really don’t change all that much,” Myers said. “We are always challenged with reinforcing the fact that there’s snow on the mountain when there may not be snow in the cities. That never changes.”
But following one of the worst seasons in the region’s history, that message may prove more imperative.
“A lot of out guests work as those ambassadors,” Morse said. “In the age of social media, they’re the ones who are sharing their own pictures and their own thoughts. I think that helped boost our reputation.”
Farmer’s Almanac’s long-range weather forecast is calling for a colder-than-normal winter, with slightly-above normal precipitation. That might spark preseason passion in skiers and riders, but until there’s tangible evidence, retribution is still in a wait-and-see limbo.
“I think it really is preparing for the worst,” Clemmer said. “And that really has been the continued investment into snow making, uplift capacity, and making sure that we have the ability to open as early as we possibly can and get as much terrain open as quickly as we possibly can.”
Eric Wilbur can be reached at email@example.com.