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Snow drought, unusual warmth create 'extremely challenging' season for Northeast ski resorts

By By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
December 22, 2015, 9:23:25 PM EST

The holiday season is one of the busiest times of the year for ski resorts across the country, but for the Northeast, milder-than-normal weather is making it challenging this year.

Due to a lack of snow, many ski areas in New York and Pennsylvania listed zero trails in operation on their websites, but they expressed to their customers that they would make snow in a moment's notice if temperatures became suitable.

Holiday Valley Resort in Ellicottville, New York, located about 45 miles southeast of Buffalo, announced on its website: "We're ready for the 2015-16 season, but Mother Nature needs to get serious about winter!" Holiday Valley reported zero inches of snowfall so far this season.


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In New Hampshire, the warmth has definitely made an impact, said Jessyca Keeler, executive director of Ski New Hampshire. While a few resorts were able to resume snow-making operations this week, many ski areas haven't made snow since Dec. 7 or Dec. 8, she explained.

"With the next cold front expected to come through this week, everyone will have their snow-making systems powered up and refreshing already open trails or trying to open new trails," Keeler said. "Some ski areas will be trying to open for the first time the day after Christmas."

In contrast, about a foot of snow fell in New Hampshire around Thanksgiving last year, providing a good snow base. That, along with colder air, provided good conditions during several weeks when there was no snowfall in December and January.

The Christmas and New Year's holiday period represents one of the peaks in tourism, along with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January and President's Day weekend in February. The number can vary, but in general the number of visitors during Christmas is approximately 20 percent of the season's business, Keeler said.


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When it opened its terrain park several weekends ago, Big Boulder Park at Jack Frost Big Boulder Ski Area in Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, became the first and only in the state so far to open. However, on its Facebook page, the ski area declared that it was unclear when additional trails would be ready.

"We'll just have to wait and see at this point especially whether or not Mother Nature decides to cooperate," the resort posted. "We really appreciate the patience, understanding, and support you have all shown so far in this extremely challenging start to the season."

Melissa Yingling, Marketing Specialist for Blue Mountain Ski Area in Palmerton, Pennsylvania, said they are not positive when they will be fully operational, but are starting to plan on opening in phases if the weather cooperates.

The average opening for the Blue Mountain is usually the second or third week of December, Yingling said. However, they will typically try to open as soon as possible for their guests to hit the slopes.

“We’re anticipating a later start than usual this year, which is a big change from our extremely early openings the last two years, she said. “Last year’s pre-Thanksgiving opening was the earliest we opened the resort since being in business.”

While some resorts are urging guests to do snow dances or ask for snow for Christmas, there will be a window of opportunity for ski resort operators to work on some trails this weekend.

"It will get cold enough for most ski resorts in the Northeast to start making snow Friday night into Sunday," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said.

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In the Upper Midwest, the best time to make snow would will last through Saturday night, Sosnowski added.

An El Niño-influenced weather pattern has been the culprit for the lack of cold shots and persistent mild air. Many locations across the Northeast could challenge the warmest December on record.

Some locations have fared better than others. Vermont ski resorts have been able to get off to a bit of a head start compared to the rest of the Northeast. With snowmaking in effect since October, there are 11 Alpine and Nordic resorts out of 49 that have been able to welcome skiers and snowboarders. Still, those that are open have less than half the amount of trails available.

"Since the weekend of Dec. 5-6, we haven't had proper snow-making weather, so we haven't increased terrain but have been maintaining about 1,000 acres open," said Sarah Wojcik, director of public affairs for the Vermont Ski Areas Association.


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Killington Resort was the first to open in the East this season when it first welcomed skiers and snowboarders on Oct. 18. With 9 miles of skiing and riding, it currently has more trails in use than anyone else.

Both Wojcik and Keeler said resorts typically try to open around Thanksgiving, and while some aim to get their seasons underway as soon as possible, December is typically when most slopes are operational.

"Last season, we had a very strong start and ended the season with the best skier and rider visit numbers ever recorded, so it's safe to say this season has not mirrored last season yet," Wojcik said.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kevin Byrne at Kevin.Byrne@accuweather.com, follow him on Twitter at @Accu_Kevin. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.

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