Row upon row of skis and snowboards at the Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol Ski Swap awaited purchase Friday afternoon by people who are staking their winter’s future on a hope: Lots of snow will fall on the area’s mountains, and it will stay there all winter.
Four exhibition bays at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center were busy with volunteers organizing, pricing and checking equipment for sale at the annual pre-season event, which often draws large early-morning crowds looking for good deals.
But several ski resorts are nervously looking at the gathering winter forecasts and hoping for the best, even though the numbers may be against them.
“I know it will snow at Mount Spokane,” said a confident Brad McQuarrie, general manager at Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park. “I don’t know when or how much, but we’re gearing up for it.”
McQuarrie reflects a generally optimistic view shared by many ski hill managers. The National Weather Service’s optimism is somewhat guarded, though.
Climatologists with the service last week upgraded the El Niño phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean from mild to moderate status. Traditionally, strong El Niño years mean less precipitation and higher temperatures for the northern tier of the continental United States.
“It’s not exactly the best news,” said Ron Miller, a meteorologist with Spokane’s National Weather Service office. It’s the predicted shortfall of precipitation that ski hills should be concerned about, Miller said.
But things aren’t completely bleak.
This year’s winter should be cooler than the last, and the higher temperatures may primarily affect valley locations, keeping the mountains cool enough to get and keep snow.
“The one thing we can’t control is the weather so I try not to pay too much attention to it,” said Tom Chasse, president of Schweitzer Mountain Resort.
Chasse said he’s been checking in on some pre-season indicators, and notes that this year’s winter is beginning with heavy snowfall in Colorado and New England, just like last year’s season, regarded as successful by the region’s ski hills.
“I’m not a weather guy, I just sort of go on my gut feeling,” he said.
“I look at the way last year played out, and the trends seem to be stacking up the same way.”
Workers at 49 Degrees North are putting the finishing touches on a quad chair that will serve a new basin. The crew there has high hopes for white gold, but they’re preparing for the possibility of a slow start to the season because of El Nino.
“We plan on having a normal operating season,” said James Daugherty, director of marketing for the mountain. “In December and January we might see some effects, but I don’t see it having too strong an effect on our season this year.”
But before any resorts are open, the traditional ski swap must go on. The annual event is the Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol’s only fundraiser, and it allows people to put their old equipment up for sale, while others buy the gear at low prices.
“It’s a huge event and it kicks off the ski season,” said Bill Melvin, director of the ski school.
New this year is an automated bar code system that replaces the old carbon copy handwritten paperwork.
Whether it snows or not, the ski patrol must be ready for the season, Melvin said. But even he concedes that he shares a view of the season through snow-colored lenses.
“We’re optimistic it’s going to be a great year,” he said. “But every year we’re optimistic that it’s going to be a great year.”