NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — It was a scene repeated throughout ski country on Wednesday. As her husband parked, Cristina Collins of Reading and their three young daughters headed for the trails of Cranmore Mountain Resort for another day of vacation-week skiing.
The nurse practitioner and lifelong skier lauded this season’s conditions — more natural snow and thicker bases — as compared with last year’s lackluster circumstances.
“All that snow puts a bug in people’s brains back home and gets them in the mood,” she said. “The natural snow brings up the masses.”
There is optimism in the air thanks to the well-timed snowstorms and fervent blasts of snowmaking. Following a low-snow season that came to a screeching halt, Mother Nature is stepping up.
“When people see snow in their backyards, that’s the best marketing Mother Nature can do,” said Sunday River’s communications director, Darcy Morse.
That translates to more skiers and riders.
According to Karl Stone, Ski New Hampshire’s marketing director, skier visits across the Granite State are up from 4 to 37 percent over last year.
Along with Christmas and the Martin Luther King holiday, February vacation weeks are key, he said.
“This weekend is particularly crucial in helping to determine whether resorts have a successful winter,” Stone said.
Stone credits the storm after Christmas and the Blizzard of 2013 for driving people to the mountains.
“The first one set the tone for a busy period in the new year and obviously this recent storm, Nemo, got people excited and dropped snow throughout New England, which is equally important for our ski areas, “ he said. “The timing of that storm was welcome with February vacations on our doorsteps to motivate people to book vacations.”
Weather is always a challenge for ski areas, whether it be lack of snow, thaws, rain, or strong winds that curtail chair lift operations.
“The challenge in March is to get more natural snowfall,” said Stone. “But we also see other activities that challenge guests’ recreational time, like golf, children’s sports, and getting the boat ready.”
At Sunday River, the nearly 90 inches of natural snow, about 2 feet more than last season, makes it a happy place.
“Though we don’t have hard numbers, lodging reservations and tickets are up 10 percent over last year,” said Morse. “I can’t reiterate enough that this is exactly where we want to be so close to the finish line,” she said.
That could be mid-April. With an October snowmaking start, the River will continue to make snow until the end of March for the Dumont Cup, a freestyle competition needing large amounts of snow for huge features.
“We’ve had 69 days of snowmaking so far,” she said. “Last season at this time we had 88 days under our belt because we didn’t receive the natural snowfall that we did this season.”
Not only are ski areas positive but residual businesses like ski shops are seeing busy registers again. Bob Sullivan, an owner of Bob and Terry’s Sports Outlet near Sunday River and in North Conway, says skiers they haven’t seen for a couple of years are getting back on the hill.
In addition to regulars, Sullivan notes more lapsed weekend skiers at their Maine store seeking to upgrade old gear, and vacationers from the East Coast flying in to Portland needing rentals. At North Conway, they are seeing a return of families from Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Visitors from the UK are picking up, and Canadians seeking rentals are getting ready to come down for their March vacations.
“When the snow is good, retail is good. It’s that simple,” Sullivan said.
The season’s been “solid” at Wachusett in Princeton, says marketing director Tom Meyers.
A bit of a see-saw in late November until a well-timed 6-inch snowfall after Christmas set the tone, the resort “didn’t lose any steam” and weathered a January thaw that saw the area starting one Thursday with only three open trails to save snow before a front came in, temperatures dropped, the groomers returned, and the area rebounded to nearly full operation by that Saturday.
“I think that showed skiers and snowboarders to have faith in our ability to provide consistent snow conditions,” he said. “In the old days, that would have wiped you out. In the past if you had these anomalies in the weather, people would turn back with it.”
But snowmaking continued, and Nemo provided 28-32 inches, giving the area one of its best Sundays in years after travel was restored and people dug out.
Initially, Wachusett planned to start closing around March 31, but now is considering staying open into early April.
Two seasons ago, Wachusett’s season was “epic.” Last year was one of the lowest in years and now Meyers says there is momentum for the rest of the season.
“Anything goes in March,” he said. “We’re optimistic that March is going to be good like January and February.”
Central Vermont’s Killington, with more than 1,700 snow guns, is still blasting snow during vacation on high-traffic areas and building up bases targeting staying open until May on signature Superstar.
“We’re still making the same amount of snow this year versus last year,” said communications manager Sarah Thorson. “The difference is last year we were doing a lot of resurfacing instead of expanding.
“This year we are able to expand quicker because of temperatures that stayed cold.”
Ropes dropped on more trails at the Beast going into Presidents Week, 124 this season, 91 last.
Mother Nature has been more giving, too. Heading into the week last season, Killington recorded 88 inches compared with this season’s 125 inches.
With March approaching, typically a snowy month, Thorson says the resort averages 57 inches, though last season it was 21.
She said many people were planning to ski and snowboard regardless, but snow in Boston and Connecticut helps push those people off the fence and up to the mountains.
“But it is the same story,” she said. “If you see snow in your backyard you come up.”