As winter approaches, one question haunts skiers: Will El Nino bring less snow to area resorts this year?
The odds say yes, but those hoping for an abundance of the precious white stuff say, “No way!”
Records show that during the last 12 El Nino seasons, snowfall averaged 21.3 inches below normal, according to measurements taken at Spokane International Airport.
Still, the region’s two biggest ski areas - Silver Mountain and Schweitzer Mountain Resort - aren’t convinced. And they’re working hard to combat public perception that it’s going to be a year of light snowfall.
This year’s El Nino is being compared most closely with one in 1982. Because of that, Peter Gillis, the new mountain manager at Schweitzer, said he expects more snow than usual this year.
During the ‘82 El Nino, Gillis noted, the ski area near Sandpoint received about 20 inches more snow than usual. And snow has fallen at Schweitzer this season.
“We’re going to be blessed with more snow than anaverage year - perhaps as much as last year,” Gillis said.
Schweitzer plans to open on Thanksgiving.
But weather experts such as Bob Quinn say if this region doesn’t get snow early, if might not get much at all.
Quinn, a professor of geography and climatology at Eastern Washington University, said most of the precipitation came early in 1982. For that reason, he said he expects the weather this year to be cool and wet earlier and warm and dry later.
“The key to the whole snow season is (getting) a fair dumping of snow early,” said Quinn.
Part of the reason Schweitzer and Silver aren’t terribly concerned about the weather is that they still are riding the wave of excitement generated by last year’s abundant snowfall, which brought up to 200 more inches of snow than usual to area ski resorts.
Skiers were delighted, and Silver, at Kellogg, stayed open on Saturdays until mid-May. Schweitzer also extended its season by a couple of weeks.
And there’s no proof better than the cash register.
Early season pass sales set a record at Schweitzer this year, Gillis said, bringing in $450,000.
That’s good news for the resort, which is operating this year on a $750,000 loan from U.S. Bank while resort ownership issues are decided in court.
“It shows a lot of support and confidence in the local region,” Gillis said of the strong sales.
Silver Mountain also enjoyed strong early season pass sales. The ski area sold early passes for $345 and had two new promotions.
Under the first, a season pass was paired with a new pair of Rossignol skis or snowboard for $499.
The second promotion invited last year’s early season pass buyers to return with a friend. Both could buy season passes at a discount price of $299 each. Skiers began asking early about season passes this year, said Silver spokesman David Kilmer. Last year’s 500 inches of snow - compared with 300 inches in a normal year - probably had something to do with it, he said.
“A great snow year last year made people more interested in skiing earlier this year,” Kilmer said.
Also new this year at Silver is a ski-and-stay package in which skiers calling a central reservation number can pay $39.95 per person for one night’s lodging and a lift ticket. Four Kellogg area hotels are participating in the promotion, with one offering a hot tub and fireplace in every room, Kilmer said.
“We’ve had all these beds out there, but this is a chance to promote them through the ski area,” Kilmer said. “We’re going to play with the big kids this year.”
Silver didn’t make terrain improvements this year because its capital budget was spent on a new roof on the Mountain Haus Lodge.
That should keep skiers drier and warmer as they relax in the lodge after skiing, Kilmer said.
“Last year, we graded several areas on the mountain and we reconfigured some runs,” he said. “We had high hopes of doing more of that, but this thing (the roof) came first.”
Silver also has posted new maps of the mountain and informational signs at lifts and at various locations throughout the mountain.
At Schweitzer, a new condominium and retail complex should open before Christmas. Lazier Plaza, built by Bob Lazier of Colorado, will feature restaurants, ski shops and eight condominium units.
“They’ll offer some of the best views of the lake (Pend Oreille),” Gillis said.
Gillis said Schweitzer’s chairlifts, including the high-speed quad, are well-maintained and in good shape this year. The quad broke down in February 1996 and remained closed through the beginning of last fall’s ski season.
New this year, Schweitzer is offering a promotion to Bonner County schoolchildren with excellent attendance records.
Those who miss fewer than four days in a semester can buy a season pass for $150. The promotion applies to all students from kindergarten through high school.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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