Ski resorts ask, What happened to winter?
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In normal winters -- and who knows what they are these days -- there would be smiles on the faces of ski resort owners and their guests in the Laurel Highlands during the Christmas and New Year holidays.
But not this winter.
With the notable exception of Seven Springs, in Somerset County, it doesn't appear as though anyone will be doing any cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or sleigh-riding any time soon.
"This is the worst start to a ski season that I've seen in 38 years," said Dick Barron, director of ski operations at Seven Springs.
Blue Knob, Hidden Valley and Mystic Mountain at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa, their cold weather employees, ski and snowboard shops and ski clubs have all been hit hard by the warm and wet weather. The resorts offered indoor activities for their holiday guests, but most of their on-slope employees will have no work until cold weather returns.
Although night-time temperatures are expected to fall well below freezing both in the mountains and around Pittsburgh tomorrow and Tuesday, they are expected to climb back to or above freezing overnight later in the week.
"We'll be ready," Mr. Barron said, referring to the prospect of at least a couple of days of cold weather.
They resort's snowmaking crews, headed by mountain manager Bill Cavalcante, were ready early last month when the temperature dropped well below 32 degrees and stayed there for 58 consecutive hours. They blanketed nine slopes and trails on the front side of the resort and one slope on the North Face side with snow that ranged in depth from 16 to 26 inches.
The effort was so successful that more than 6 million pounds of the snow they made a month ago on the Alpine slope was loaded into large trucks Wednesday and Thursday and dumped at the top of several other slopes and trails and the snow-tubing area. Snow-grooming machines then pushed it over, spread it out and packed it down. The base depth now ranges from 4 inches to 14 inches.
Mr. Barron said the numbers tell the tale.
"The average low in December 2005 was 23 degrees; the average high was 29 degrees," he said. "That gave us good snowmaking opportunities. The average low last month was 31 degrees. The average high was 42 degrees. That's why we are where we are."
There are several reasons for the poor start, including the notorious El Nino weather system in the tropical Pacific, said Bob Reed, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
El Nino conditions create higher-than-normal ocean temperatures and affect the flow of the jet stream. Instead of frigid air zeroing in on the region from the arctic and Canada via the Great Lakes, the weather in Pennsylvania and other mid-Atlantic and New England states has been influenced by drier and warmer Southwest and Gulf Coast conditions.
Mr. Reed said it appears the El Nino conditions are weakening. If so, it could mean a return to a "normal" winter. "But there can be wild swings back and forth in the weather," he said. He experienced one of those warm-one-day, cold-the-next weather swings early last month while driving to Pittsburgh on Interstate 80 from a deer camp in Tioga County.
"The wind was so strong that it blew the driver's side mirror flat against the side of the car," he said. "I pushed it back into position but another gust knocked it back again. I ended up using the rear view mirror for the rest of the trip."
Mr. Reed said the 0.7 inch of snow recorded at Pittsburgh International Airport on Dec. 7 was the total snowfall for the month. He said the "normal" December snowfall is 6.9 inches. Rainfall, which includes melted snow, also was below normal -- 2.01 inches instead of the normal 2.86 inches.
The average temperature last month was 38.8 degrees, several degrees above the normal temperature of 32.5 degrees. The warmest day -- 70 degrees -- was Dec. 1. The coldest days were Dec. 7 and 8 when the high each day was only 17 degrees.
It was a lot colder and snowier in December 2005. The average temperature at the airport was 27.6 degrees and 12.2 inches of snow fell. The coldest temperature of the month was 7 degrees on Dec. 8. The highest temperature -- 55 degrees -- was recorded on Dec. 28.
A few trails open
Blue Knob, Hidden Valley and Mystic Mountain hope so.
"We've been waiting for it to turn around," said Tim Lyons, director of sales and marketing at Blue Knob. "We opened the top of the mountain last weekend, but closed it after New Year's because the base just got too thin."
Mr. Lyons said the resort gave its holiday guests information about various sight-seeing attractions and restaurants in nearby Altoona and Bedford. "If they wanted to ski, we gave them directions to Seven Springs," he said.
"All this warm weather is nuts. It's more like Mississippi than Pennsylvania," said Kay Maghan, a spokesman for Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa and a native of the Magnolia State. "We had the Links Golf Course open last weekend."
The resort's modest-size ski area was able to open only its beginner slope for a few days last month before closing because of the warm and wet weather.
Ms. Maghan said the resort went all out -- even using owner Joe Hardy's private gymnasium at his home -- to entertain its guests, especially children, during the holidays.
A Kids Carnival was set up in the Woodlands World building, the former location of an outdoor apparel and equipment store that was moved to Uniontown. There were arcade and carnival games with prizes, Foosball, face-painting, coloring contests and SpongeBob SquarePants videos. There also was indoor paintball.
Outside the Sundial Lodge, the climbing wall and ropes course were opened. Dogsled rides were adapted to the weather conditions. The dogs pulled a two-passenger Touri cart with wheels.
The resort was expecting a full house this weekend for the 84th birthday of Mr. Hardy, the founder of 84 Lumber. His birthday is today.
The unseasonably warm weather meant a major loss of business for Center Ski and Snowboard in Plum. "Business was down about 30 percent last month compared to December 2005," said Manager Jim Reinicker. "Are we in a warm weather cycle or can this be attributed to global warming?"
The recent closing of the nearby Boyce Park ski area for a year-long and much-needed $1 million renovation also may have contributed to the drop in December sales.
On a brighter note, Mr. Reinicker said a ski trip for 70 persons that the store organized to the Whistler and Blackcomb ski resorts in British Columbia in April is almost sold out. And it's doing a good business selling discount lift tickets for Snowshoe, the ski resort in east-central West Virginia, which has 29 slopes and trails open for skiing and snowboarding.
Bill Linkenheimer, the general manager of the Willi's ski and snowboard stores in Castle Shannon, Monroeville, Ross and Seven Springs, said business was "substantially down" in December.
The Western Pennsylvania Ski Council, an organization comprising representatives of 15 local and regional ski clubs, lamented the lack of snow at its monthly meeting Thursday evening at the Penn Monroe bar and restaurant in Monroeville. The council rescheduled some of its events for later in the season.
When they left, it was raining, a form of precipitation snow sports enthusiasts refer to as underdeveloped snow.
The warmer-than-usual winter weather also has homeowners and gardeners buzzing over early blooms, said Penn State Extension educator Sandy Feather. But she's not sure why.
"We never have a normal winter," she said, laughing.
Though she's noticed some woody ornamentals pushing buds and a few spring bulbs putting on green foliage, that's not unusual, she said.
What is a concern, however, is that some perennials have not hardened off properly in the mild weather. Down the road, if we get a sudden, severe cold snap and temperatures in the single digits, some of those plants may not make it.V.W.H. Campbell, Post-Gazette
At Hidden Valley resort in Somerset County, the only snow on the slopes is under the snowmaking towers.
Click photo for larger image.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published January 7, 2007 12:00 am