News Briefs

Snowmaking saved worst season in decades for Vermont ski resorts

Rutland Region holds up market share

By Karen D. Lorentz

Historical data indicate that Vermont’s 2015-16 ski/ride season was the most challenging season since 1979-80, a year when all eastern states qualified for Federal [economic] Disaster Assistance status due to record low snowfalls, rain, and warm weather.

However, while most Vermont Alpine areas saw less natural snow than the 1980 season when visits dropped 34.4 percent to 2.1 million (from the prior year’s 3.2 million), snowmaking saved the 2016 season and helped to post 1.1 million more visits than the winter of 1980.

After that winter, many of the 36 ski areas closed or consolidated while others got on the snowmaking bandwagon, which Bromley and Killington had long touted. Over 30 years of investing millions in snowmaking capabilities plus the great 2014-15 snowgun roundup —13 areas replaced 2,255 snow guns with 2,721 energy efficient “low –e” guns — prevented a disaster for the challenging 2015-16 season which saw 20 areas record 3,221,187 skier and snowboarder visits. That was a 32 percent drop from last year’s 4,670,903 visits — the record season since Vermont Ski Areas Association (VSAA) began directly tallying visits in 1992 (prior to that a state agency estimated visits). Contributing to the decline were shorter operating seasons for most areas due to warm weather. Still, some resorts like Stowe (April 24 closing) and Killington (May 29) were able to post long seasons at 152 days and 189 days respectively. Click here for a full history of Skier Visits.

How challenging was it?

The 2015-16 season saw the lowest natural snowfalls on record and also the warmest temperatures. As a result, few were able to open 100 percent of terrain, and the season beat out not only the winter of 1979-80 for low snowfall but also the infamously difficult winters of 1973 and 1974 — when recession and gasoline shortages also exacerbated the effect of poor snow seasons.

A community skiing gem Northeast Slopes in East Corinth, has been a natural snow only area since 1936. It was only able to be open for five days this year. It normally operates 40-50 days annually, reported NES President Steve Simpson.

“If not for snowmaking, I’m not sure we could have had a skiable, groomable product worthy of turning on the lifts,” stated Killington Communications and PR Manager Michael Joseph. “Snowmaking definitely saved the season.”

Killington received its lowest natural snowfall ever at 81 inches (1980 saw 138 inches).

In 1979-80, Okemo received 54 inches of natural snow and was only able to offer skiing on the upper third of its terrain for five days due to a lack of natural snow. Thanks to snowmaking on the lower mountain, they made snow on 80 days of a 120-day operating season and posted 88,000 skier visits.

With a tying low of 54 inches of snowfall this year, Okemo operated for 132 days (shorter than usual), but thanks to a vastly expanded snowmaking system opened from the top of the mountain and had the East’s only halpipe open, noted Director of Public Relations Bonnie MacPherson. The area’s snowmaking commitment also resulted in several times the 1980 skier visit number.

Although Vermont fell below its 4.2 million 10-year average for visits, it did retain its no. 1 ranking in the East due to remaining ahead of New York, which has 52 ski areas, many with night skiing.

However, Vermont lost its number three national ranking — behind Colorado and California — to Utah which enjoyed a banner year with a record 4.46-million visits which bested its five-year 4.04 million average for its 14 resorts.

National, VSAA perspectives offer rebound hope

Vermont was not alone this past winter as weather challenges across the entire eastern half of the country resulted in declines from the 2014-15 season in the Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast, according to preliminary results from the annual Kottke survey conducted for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA).

A record season in the West helped visitation increase nationally, however, to 53.9 million from 53.6 in 2014-15. (That compares to a recent low of 51 million visits in 2011-12 and a record high of 60.5 million in 2010-11. The 2016 season was down 4.6 percent from the 10-year industry average of 56.5 million, according to NSAA.)

Last year the West endured low snowfalls while the East did exceedingly well with cold temps and decent snow. This year saw a reversal with the Pacific Northwest Region (AK, WA, OR) up 142 percent, more than doubling from two million visits in 2014-15 (a drought year) to almost 5 million visits this season making it the region’s best season in 38 years.

The Pacific Southwest region (CA, AZ, and NV) increased 53 percent over last year. “It’s especially encouraging to see how strongly California roared back from four straight bad seasons of drought, with the amazing recovery this season reflecting the pent-up demand from our guests,” said NSAA President Michael Berry.

“Our skiers and boarders came back this season with a vengeance, which reinforces the underlying passion and loyalty of our guests, and it bodes very well for our ski areas in the East, Midwest and Southeast for next year,” Berry added.

Pent-up demand after poor weather/economy years often leads to a spike the following year, records show. Skier visits nationally have also grown significantly over the decades from 1.02 million in 1962 to 4.67 in 2015.

According to 54 years of skier tallies (1963-2016), 21 seasons saw declines from prior years that ranged from miniscule to large drops, averaging more like 5 to 10 percent year-over-year declines with the exceptions of the 1974 decrease of 28 percent, 1980 (34 percent) and 2016 (32 percent). Only three times were there two consecutive years of declines — 1973 and 1974, 1991 and 1992, and 2006 and 2007.

Rutland Region captures 26 percent

While off from their historical average of doing 28 to 33 percent of the state’s total visits, which the trio of Killington, Pico and Okemo has averaged since the 1980s, the resorts were able to capture 26 percent of the state’s visits largely due to their reputations for reliable snow.

While all three experienced significant declines in visitation, fickle snowfall was not the entire reason for the percentage decrease.

Okemo’s change to RFID cards gave a more accurate skier visit count for season passholders. All areas that switch to scanning guns or RFID cards have experienced drops in their annual visitations due to the fact that visits from season passholders are no longer estimated (data now suggests the estimation formula was too high) but are electronically recorded. Killington and Pico have scanned for many years now.

In recapping Killington’s season, Joseph said the area opened on Oct. 18 but closed Oct. 26 through Nov. 13, reopening on Nov. 14 to then operate daily through May 1. After that, lift-serviced skiing occurred on weekends and ending May 29. [When the lifts were not operating folks have “earned their turns” hiking up to ski or ride down and were still doing so as late as June 15 due to the cooler spring weather and the five inches of snow that fell in May.]

Snowmaking operations began in Oct. and went through Feb., but the area made less snow than last year due to the warmer temperatures and smaller windows of opportunity to run the guns, Joseph noted.

“We use a blend of guns, older and newer high tech guns, to open – the older are more expensive to use, but they are powerful and operate well in marginal conditions,” Joseph said.

“The largest natural snowfall occurred on Monday, Jan. 18 when 8 or 9 inches fell,” he continued. “It also snowed an inch or three almost every day the week preceding Martin Luther King weekend. The other bigger snowfalls included a 7 incher on Feb. 26 and 5 inches in May 15-16.” The rest of the 81 inches came in smaller dustings, he noted.

As a result, the biggest trail counts were 112 at Killington and 25 at Pico around the MLK holiday period. Only a few glades were ever officially open, Joseph said.

While some spring events had to be moved to different trails (namely the Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge which was held on Superstar,) the Triatholon was the only major event to be cancelled.

“We were happy to pull off the Mogul Challenge” said Joseph. “We also got jump on getting the mountain bike trails on Snowshed ready for an early opening Memorial Day Weekend,” he added, pointing to a silver lining.

Okemo operated from Nov. 15 through April 3. The closing date was a disappointment as Okemo is used to going into mid- or late April most seasons, MacPherson said, noting, “We were farming snow and moving snow around on a regular basis just to stay open in spring as long as we did.”

Looking at natural snowfall over the last few decades, MacPherson noted that from 1998 forward the area received between 100 and 200 inches annually, making this year’s 54-inches an aberration! However, the higher efficiency guns enabled the area to open from the top of the mountain for the third year in a row, despite the challenging conditions. “It was the commitment to snowmaking that enabled the area to offer the only halfpipe in East as well,” she noted.

“We used 400-million gallons of water which is our usual amount… In typical years you make snow and move on to another trail, but this year was unusual in having to resurface high traffic areas and certain trails multiple times,” she said. “Having the toolbox to get the job done is very important, but if we had only had the older style guns, we would have had a shorter season.”

MacPherson concluded on an optimistic note saying that weather forecasters “are projecting an La Nina year for next season,” which typically brings colder temperatures.


Vermont Average Snowfall, inches by year

2015-2016            107”

2014-2015            220”

2013-2014            203”

2012-2013            198”

2011 – 2012        138”

2010 – 2011        246”

2009 – 2010        173”

2008 – 2009        231”

2007 – 2008        245”

2006 – 2007        227”

2005 – 2006        192”

2004 – 2005       205”

2003 – 2004        217”

2002 – 2003        239”

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