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Agile ski resorts overcome El Niño

Sun., March 28, 2010

Sunny days, spring events help them cope with warm winter

Skiers and snowboarders traded the epic powder dumps of the past two years for sunshine this season as El Niño held court at area ski hills.

With snowpack at 51 percent of normal in the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene basins, ski area operators at the Inland Northwest’s five resorts said they didn’t receive the snowfall they would have liked, but they can’t remember a year with more sunny days. Just as Spokane saw its first golf courses open in February, spring skiing conditions started early this year, bringing warm weather that softened the snow.

“We’ve had more bluebird sunny days than I can ever remember,” said Brad McQuarrie, manager of Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park.

The National Weather Service’s Spokane office recorded the fourth-warmest winter on record, excluding December, and one of the lowest amounts of snowfall ever measured at Spokane International Airport. Despite the weather, some regional resorts reported slightly improved visitation over last year. Others said the lack of snowfall coupled with the tough economy contributed to declines in skier visits of around 15 percent.

“We’re going to end up ahead of last year in revenues and in actual tickets sold, not by much, but November, December and January had nice increases,” said Phil Edholm, president of Lookout Pass on the Montana/Idaho border. “Things started to slide in February, and March was really slow.”

John Williams, marketing director at Silver Mountain in Kellogg, agreed that the “major slide-off in traffic has been the last six weeks. It’s a distraction issue. When the grass is greening up and the bikes are on the paths, it’s hard to get people to re-engage in snow sports.”

But some skiers and snowboarders will keep going as long as snow remains. Helping it stick around is a solid foundation of high-density snow that fell early in the season and is enduring despite the warm weather. Ski resort operators said much of the visitation they saw was from season pass holders or hard-core skiers who know snow remains in the mountains even when none exists in town.

With a lack of plentiful snowfall, the sunshine appeared to be a savior in helping draw people to the mountains for outdoor barbecues and spectacular views. Weather service data showed December was 55 percent sunnier than normal, based on a 12-year average. January was 13 percent sunnier, and though the region saw more cloudy weather in February, March is finishing up about average.

“Sunshine brings out people,” said Dave Kulis, marketing and sales director at Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Sandpoint, where a sunny day offers dramatic views of Lake Pend Oreille.

Due to mid-November snowfall, ski areas opened earlier than usual. All were open with at least limited terrain by Thanksgiving weekend, enabling them to take advantage of the frequently lucrative holiday season. Lookout Pass, typically the first to open of the Inland Northwest’s five ski resorts, opened Nov. 13. The other four – 49 Degrees North in Chewelah, Wash., Mt. Spokane, Schweitzer and Silver Mountain – followed within two weeks.

In anticipation of El Niño, some resorts cut brush lower than normal to make do with the anticipated diminished snowpack.

“You didn’t have to worry about stuff poking out,” said Eli Coski, manager of WinterSport ski shop in Spokane and a skier and snowboarder. Coski said his technicians didn’t see much damage to skis and snowboards from poor early-season conditions. “Obviously we haven’t been getting the powder like we were spoiled with the last couple of years. But the snowpack was great … and it was sunny.”

The region didn’t get many major snowstorms, but “there were a lot of good days of 4 to 6 inches,” said Brad Northrup, sales and marketing director for 49 Degrees North. And, he added, “Four inches is better than no inches.”

Nationwide, the 2010 Winter Olympics helped fuel skier visits, said Troy Hawks, a spokesman for the National Ski Areas Association, but many regions that predictably get snow didn’t this year. “Then Washington, D.C., gets hammered,” Hawks said. “We’re waiting to see how it ends up. We’ll see if we can stretch the season into Easter.”

In the Inland Northwest, resort skiing or snowboarding is available until April 11, when Schweitzer plans to close. Mt. Spokane will close Saturday and the remaining three on April 4. The final week of the season offers great deals. Following tradition, skiing is free at 49 Degrees North this week while many students are on spring break. Mt. Spokane lift tickets are $10 this week, from Monday through Saturday, and Lookout Pass is offering free skiing today, the end of a deal that started Friday.

Silver Mountain plans to offer “Silver Saturdays” – opening just on Saturdays after its planned closing date of April 4, for as long as the snow remains and people show up. Silver Mountain also will host on April 24 its annual Leadman Triathlon, a ski/bike/run event that starts at the top of the hill and ends in downtown Kellogg.

Schweitzer is working to extend the season with its first Spring Fling Pass. Sales started March 1 for the $99 pass that allows usage from March 15 to the projected end of the season on April 11. The $99 also counts as a discount toward a 2010-’11 season pass, Kulis said. Just two visits make the pass worthwhile because Schweitzer lift tickets cost $59.

“We were honestly concerned about people moving on to other things and the end of the season drying up a little bit, despite the fact that the snowpack was holding up well,” Kulis said. “We were really doing it to stimulate interest.”

In another first for the Sandpoint-area resort, everyone who arrived this past Friday by 11 a.m. skied for free during Locals Appreciation Day. “We wanted to give something back to the community,” Kulis said. “Everyone felt the economic pinch. People are still passionate about Schweitzer. We wanted to say thank you.”

With an eye toward the next recreational season, Edholm also said warmer weather might allow Lookout Pass to switch to its summer business – operation of the Trail of the Hiawathas – earlier than normal. The bike ride across historic train trestles usually opens Memorial Day weekend, but the warmer weather has bumped that tentative date up to May 22, Edholm said.

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