The cry can be heard from Inland Northwest ski hills: Oh, Mother Nature, what have we done to cross you?
It hasn’t been this awful for snow since 1989, when warm temperatures washed out much of December’s snow. Ski operators find themselves praying to avoid a repeat.
This week’s rains - which turned to snow in the higher elevations late Thursday - have soaked most ski mountains and turned the already fragile snowpack at their bases into porridge.
Ski resorts can make as much as half their money in the three weeks around Christmas. The more terrain the regional resorts have open by the middle of next week, the better.
Hotels in Sandpoint and the Silver Valley are worried that customers will start canceling holiday reservations if snow conditions don’t improve.
“People usually wait until the last minute to cancel, so we are praying for more snow,” said Nancy Hanson, president of Sand-Ida Services Inc., which owns several hotels. “Our weekend sales are already way down because they are not open. The people just aren’t here.”
For the five major hills in the area, a real financial crisis could arrive next week, if the snow isn’t better. But resort operators are optimistic the weather will change.
“We can flip the switch on and be up and running in 15 minutes,” said Denny Burmeister, general manager at 49 Degrees North near Chewelah. “We just need the snow.”
His mountain has velvety slopes up top, but only a wafer-thin hardpack at the lodge.
“We’re not talkin’ disaster yet,” he said. “But the holidays are where the money is made.”
Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Sandpoint will open just a single chair Friday, three weeks later than last year’s Thanksgiving opening that featured more snow than they could groom.
Schweitzer needs a good foot-deep dusting to even make the other chair lifts reachable, said spokesman Bill Mullane. On top of that, the mountain’s big quad lift is down until Saturday, so skiers can’t get to the really good stuff at the top of the bowl until then, he said.
If it’s a white Christmas, Schweitzer will easily make up for the three weeks of barren slopes. On a typical weekday Schweitzer sees 200-300 skiers. Over Christmas the hill swarms with 3,000 to 5,000 skiers.
To the southeast at Silver Mountain Ski & Summer Resort, about 15 of the 50 runs are open, said Tim Newhart, marketing director. It’s still “early season” conditions - meaning leave the new skis at home - but things are looking up.
If Silver Mountain can get enough fluffy stuff to open Chair 4 and its steep terrain that advance skiers crave, the holiday season can be salvaged, said Newhart.
Farther east on Interstate 90 at Lookout Pass, fresh snow coats the mountain, which is about 60 percent open, said Dean Cooper, resort spokesman.
“At one point this week it got so warm up there that the snow was actually melting,” he said. “Then it froze rock-solid, which actually gives us a good base to build on.”
Ticket agents for Mount Spokane Ski Area say there’s plenty of good stuff on top, but another six inches are needed at the base to open up.
Local motels still have a few vacancies, but say they expect lots of cancellations if Schweitzer isn’t open for Christmas.
Early season snow not only kick-starts the season, but gets people booking holiday vacations.
Schweitzer’s Green Gables Lodge and other motels in Sandpoint have fielded hundreds of calls from skiers who booked rooms for the Christmas holiday.
Few have canceled reservations, though. Most want a snow report to find out if they will be skiing the mountain or playing cards in their expensive hotel rooms.
“Most are holding on to their reservations, because they are hard to get,” Mullane said. “Besides, there are not a lot of other places to go in the Northwest. The resorts that are open, like Big Mountain (in Montana), are already booked for Christmas.”
Some of the hundreds of seasonal employees waiting for Schweitzer to open landed jobs at Coldwater Creek, the successful mail-order company immersed in the Christmas rush.
Several people who depend on the ski season for employment have come into Job Service offices around the area, said Kathryn Tacke, a labor analyst with the Idaho Department of Employment. “It’s been tough to help them because it’s not easy to find work in December around here.”