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Early ski opening unlikely

Sun., Nov. 18, 2007

A little advice for snowhounds going into Thanksgiving week: Help with the dishes, watch a little football and get a start on the holiday shopping season.

But as far as hitting the slopes … it’s not likely to happen. Not even on your worst pair of rock skis.

“I’m not saying it’s not doable, but it’s going to be tough,” Bob Tobin, Spokane meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said when asked the odds of ski areas getting the snow they need to open by Thursday or the weekend.

A storm expected tonight and Monday could dump some snow. But the brunt of it will hit the Blue Mountains and Palouse – even Pullman may see a couple of inches, Tobin said.

A Thanksgiving opening is the gold standard for ski areas, often a harbinger to a long and profitable season. It happens a few times every decade – including last year – at the five areas that make up the Inland Northwest Ski Association.

Resort managers never like to make public predictions about opening dates.

“We don’t want to promise something and put it out there when it’s really weather-dependent,” said Schweitzer Mountain Resort spokeswoman Jennifer Ekstrom. “Everything we see in the forecast says that it’s going to be getting colder again and that we’ll see snow soon.”

The resort, which needs two to three feet of compacted snow to open, typically has its lifts running by the first weekend in December. It opens during Thanksgiving weekend about a third of the time, Ekstrom said.

An early opening was a longer shot this year than most, since Thanksgiving is falling on the earliest possible date. Still, resort operators were hopeful, with 49 Degrees North sending out a press release on Sept. 20, announcing “It’s Snowing,” followed by 11 exclamation points.

Nearly a month later, the ski area near Chewelah, Wash., has only a couple of inches of snow on the ground. But Josh King, marketing manager for 49 Degrees North, said Saturday that managers remain poised to hit the “Go” button.

“We can open up at a moment’s notice,” King said. “We basically just get on the phone, call all our employees and then send out a press release.”

And things are looking good for a profitable season, King said Saturday at the Ski the Northwest Rockies Snow Show in the Spokane Convention Center. Season ticket sales for 49 Degrees North are up significantly, he said, perhaps because of an improved access road and an additional chairlift that opened last year.

Mt. Spokane ski area has set a record for season ticket sales, said general manager Brad McQuarrie. And the annual ski swap to benefit the Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol was one of the most profitable on record, he said.

“It seems like folks are gearing up to go skiing,” he said.

Mt. Spokane has a couple of new ski runs, while Lookout Pass has a new chairlift providing access to six new runs. Schweitzer spent $6 million this year on two new lifts that will increase uphill capacity by 28 percent, Ekstrom said. Silver Mountain has expanded its territory.

Of course, those aren’t the only ski areas visited by Spokane-area residents. But travel to British Columbia resorts could be affected by the soaring Canadian dollar, which the Bank of Canada says is worth $1.03 in U.S. currency now, compared with 88 cents last year and 63 cents five years ago.

People at Saturday’s Snow Show were mentioning the unfavorable exchange rate, said Nadine Randall, a reservation agent who was working a booth for the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies. “But it doesn’t seem to be deterring them,” she said.

As for the high cost of gasoline, Spokane Falls Community College student Perry Hunter said it might prompt him to carpool to Schweitzer, but it’s not going to keep him off his snowboard.

“I’m still going to go up as much as ever,” Hunter said as he was leaving the Snow Show. “It’s going to break my bank a little, but it’s worth it.”


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