By Andrew Nemethy, VTDigger.org
Vermont’s snow sports industries are having an epic winter — but not in a good way.
After last year’s prodigious snows and long winter sports season, which ran up a record number of 4.7 million alpine skier and rider visits and boosted sales of snowmobiles and other gear, this winter is proving memorable in a different way.
“This is a year of survival,” said Mike Miller, who has been at the helm of Mountain Meadows ski touring center in Killington for 28 years and has had virtually no trails open this winter. He is not alone. Many Nordic centers, especially in central and southern Vermont, can count in single digits the days they’ve had skiing.
Asked if he can remember a worse year, he said flatly: “Never. It’s the worst.”
Tim Mills, of Bethel, heads the statewide nonprofit snowmobile association, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, which comprises 128 member clubs. Mills’ local club, the White River Valley Ramblers, has not rambled once this year on its trails.
“We’ve never officially groomed or opened,” said Mills, who became president of VAST last year. Aside from some brief snowmobiling in the state’s two strongholds, in the high elevations of Woodford down south and the Northeast Kingdom, the entire 5,000-mile VAST system has been closed all winter.
“It’s very discouraging, but even more so knowing that people who want to can’t ride,” he said.
From Vermont’s downhill ski resorts to its Nordic centers and snowmobiling industry, words like “challenging” and “difficult” and “horrible” crop up in interviews and hint at the common thread of concerns about this nearly snowless and unusually warm winter.
For a nonverbal indicator of how different and discouraging this year is, look no further than the top of Mount Mansfield to the snow depth gauge on the state’s highest mountain.
On Monday, the snow at the stake was 21 inches deep, the lowest ever for that date since measurements began being recorded in the winter of 1954-55. As of Thursday, it had gained an inch and stood at 22 inches, according to Kim McMahon of the National Weather Service in Burlington.
Last year it was 60 inches, and the average for this time is around 56 inches, according to data kept by the University of Vermont.
Looking for relief
Whether you blame climate change, El Niño or just Mother Nature’s whims, the devastating double whammy of the snow drought and the prevailing warm temperatures has been particularly brutal this winter. Scott Dorwart, who runs the ski touring center at the Stowe Mountain Resort, joked that “December was the fall that never quit.”
While January brought enough snow to provide some skiing at least until early this month, the warmup into the 40s and 50s and rains wiped out what base was available on his trails and left a sheen of miserable ice when temperatures sank.
He agreed with Miller that this year is proving to be worst in his memory. Like many other touring centers, his was virtually closed last week and relying on snowshoers for any business.
The President’s Day vacation period — two staggered weeks that are huge for snow sports revenues — it’s no exaggeration to say all eyes are turned to the sky and the weather prognosticators, and also down at the bottom line, wondering if revenues are going to cover fixed costs.
Meteorologist Roger Hill, who runs his Weathering Heights forecasting service from Worcester, doesn’t see much change ahead. A potential 4- to 8-inch snowstorm the middle of this week may fizzle like others and become a partial sleet and rain event.
“All the opportunities I have been seeing, at least for Vermont, have been negated,” he said, citing an El Niño effect that prevents arctic air from a long-term stay. El Niño, the cyclical warming trend of Pacific ocean waters, is “still way, way strong for this time of year,” he said.
The only positive in the forecast is that the last half of February and March may offer colder, snowier weather, he said.
No winners, just losers and bigger losers
Of all Vermont’s winter recreational sports venues, alpine resorts are best able to weather this winter, largely thanks to extensive snow-making investments and upgrades in efficient high-tech equipment, according to Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, which represents 19 Alpine and 30 Nordic areas. Still, he said rough estimates are that downhill resorts were “off substantially” over the Christmas vacation, when he said only 12 percent of the state’s alpine trails were open.
“It could go down as the worst December we’ve ever had,” he said.
Visits rebounded around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and resorts are hoping to gain steam in the critical President’s Day week, which can be 20 percent of resorts’ annual business. Riehle added that resorts have long accepted the annual fluctuation in visits and the vagaries of being in a snow-dependent industry, and have the financial strength to get through this year after two good winter seasons.
Maintaining Vermont’s miles of snowmobile trails — in years when there is snow — requires a fleet of expensive grooming machines. File photo by Susanne Sperring.
At VAST, which has a $3.5 million annual budget, Mills said the group has begun taking steps to look at its fiscal situation and take what measures it has to. However, the snowmobiling group has reserves set aside for this kind of year and will survive, he said.
Snowmobiling is a sport likely to take a big hit because it has extensive fixed costs for trail work and a fleet of expensive trail grooming machines to pay for and maintain. VAST funds its operation through memberships, as well as state monies returned from snowmobile registrations.
Mills noted that even if clubs, which get paid for grooming by the mile, have no snow to groom, VAST is on the hook for $1.1 million in baseline annual payments for the groomers, which can cost $500,000 or more.
Headquartered in Berlin, VAST built its budget on 24,000 members, but early memberships were down 20 percent this year, according to trails administrator Matt Tetreault. Overall membership is likely “to be down in numbers significantly” as well, he guessed.
“There’s not much snow and not much riding, and folks are reluctant to buy a trail pass when they can’t ride,” he said. An annual pass costs $135 for in-state and $175 for out-of-state riders. Early last week no trails were listed open on the VAST website.
Tetreault said those hardest hit in snowmobiling will be the “mom and pop” stores, gas stations, restaurants and motels that cater to avid snowmobilers, as well as equipment dealers. “It’s a huge effect all the way down through the whole industry, and eventually into the state’s coffers for tax revenue,” he said.
Indeed, January revenues for consumption taxes in Vermont already reflect the winter woes. Sales and use taxes were down 11 percent, and meals and rooms taxes down nearly 3 percent, though increases in other tax revenues mitigated the decrease.
The snow drought’s impact is evident at the Trapp Family Lodge, said marketing manager Ryan Krukar. Calling the winter “challenging” so far, he estimated room bookings were down about 18 percent and said he had heard from others that bookings were off 20 to 25 percent at some places.
Trapp’s has had limited cross-country skiing most of the winter and had to close its trails recently after the warm weather wiped out the snow, forcing it to forgo hosting the SuperTour, a major ski race.
That event was transferred to Craftsbury Outdoor Center. With a big snow-making operation and a prime location in the northern snow belt, Craftsbury been virtually the only cross-country resort to be open most of the season.
Krukar said Trapp’s has offset the lack of skiing with its snowshoeing offerings and by adding family programs and activities. It is also planning to expand its snow-making, a move he said was planned in advance of this winter.
Despite the tough year, those who make a living on snow recreation have seen this before — many cite 2006 as another bad winter — and evince the fatalistic and humorous attitude similar to farmers, who know they can’t change nature.
Eric Friedman, the longtime marketing guru for Mad River Glen ski area, which has no snow-making and has seen rocky skiing at best this year, invokes a movie plot in putting it this way: “Mad River Glen is having a rough year, but we will be back. We’re like the Revenant.”