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Endless winter: ski resorts across the country extend season

Ski areas across the country are extending their seasons, hoping to capitalize on deep snowpacks and an especially late Easter weekend. But will skiers show up? And will the weather hold out? SNEWS takes a look.

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A seemingly endless supply of snowfall and a late Easter have prompted ski areas from California to New York to extend their ski season–with a few even announcing tentative plans to keep the chairlifts running until July 4th.

“With this much snow, Squaw Valley will have great coverage through May 30 and possibly even longer,” said Andy Wirth, Squaw Valley’s CEO. “We will certainly be examining the possibility of opening for July 4, conditions permitting.”

The Tahoe region has been measuring its snowfall in feet this season, with Squaw recording a new record accumulation of 691 inches (the previous record of 662 inches was set during the 1994-95 season). The area has received 150 inches of fresh snow since March 14, 2011, making for a total of more than 12 feet in just the past two weeks.

Nearby Kirkwood reported 174 inches, Sugar Bowl received 172 inches, and Vail Resorts’ latest acquisition, Northstar-at-Tahoe, is producing its own early returns with a total of 627 inches to date. “Insane is the word for it; the snow just hasn’t stopped up here,” Sugar Bowl spokesperson Heather Graziano told California’s KCRA-3 TV. “We’ve averaged 450 inches of snow the last couple of years and we’re over 200 inches more than that right now. It’s very exciting.”

With record snow of its own, the Mt. Shasta Ski Park is extending its season to the weekend of April 22, a week later than its scheduled closing date. The ski park received more than 8 feet at its lodge on March 28, 2011, and the city of Mount Shasta has broken a 108-year-old snowfall record for March with 97.9 inches, according to the National Weather Service. In Nevada, with more than 523 inches of snow this season, Mt. Rose announced the area will now be open until May 8th.

Across the country, other areas are following suit. In New York, where Whiteface reported a 15 percent increase in skier traffic, Holiday Valley will stay open a week later, until April 10, 2011. Marketing director Jane Eshbaugh told the Associated Press that the area has already seen more than 500,000 skiers this season, and will likely exceed last season’s 541,390 skier visit mark. “We still have two weeks to go with a lot of snow,” Eshbaugh said. “We will get a fair amount of late season skiers.”

With Easter falling so late on the calendar this year, occurring on April 24, 2011 as opposed to April 4 in 2010, the extra snowfall has many ski area operators holding out for what they hope is one last burst of spring traffic. In Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Oregon, more than a dozen ski areas have announced plans to extend operations, while Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort and The Canyons are just the latest to say they will be open until at least April 17, giving their guests at least one more week on the slopes.

But at nearby Snowbird–an area that is almost synonymous with mid to late May closing dates–VP of Operations Dave Fields cautions that you can?t always expect the skier visits to match the snowpack. “Late season skiing is not a money-making venture,” Fields said. “There are generally not enough skiers beyond mid-April to cover the costs of operating chairlifts and paying the staff.”

Fields said that because of the Tram, “Snowbird is uniquely positioned to offer late season skiing,” following the sun across the upper slopes, and that the area’s past season track record has led guests to expect it. “Our season pass holders have come to expect a long season and it’s part of our proposition,” he said. “Snowbird offers the longest season in Utah.”

As Fields noted, a deep supply of snow doesn’t always equal demand in the ski area business, especially as the days start getting warmer and the gardening tools and bicycles come out. And NSAA President Michael Berry thinks that in some cases, this season’s heavy snowfalls might have actually offset skier traffic.

“No pun intended, but especially East of the Mississippi, some of the wet weather might have actually had a dampening effect,” Berry said. “While there were some cases where you really might have had too much of a good thing in the West. In Tahoe there were certainly areas that have been impacted by the snow, and roads closed so that people couldn’t even get to the slopes. That has definitely had some impact on the overall skier traffic. And while I’ll still say we have had a very good year, I’m not sure I would say it is great just yet.”

Berry said the late Easter has left many ski areas without their typical “demarcation” date for when to turn off the lifts. And he added that potential spring rains and low skier turnout could still skew even the most positive closing dates.

“It is an aspect of the eternal optimism of this industry that there is still money to be made,” Berry said. “But if you wake up and its 65 degrees for a couple of days in a row, especially in the Northeast, you will certainly have second thoughts.”

Especially if your customers stop showing up. “We’ve gotten some calls, and people are always on Facebook asking why we’re not open,” Abigail Stasik of Blue Mountain Ski Area in Pennsylvania told the AP of the decision to close on March 21, 2011. “But the numbers weren’t there for the month. It didn’t make sense to operate the lifts and stay open for the 50 people still looking to ski.”

–Peter Kray

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