Mild weather creates slippery slope for ski resorts

Feb. 19—Unseasonably warm temperatures, untimely rain and a lack of natural snow created challenges for area ski resorts trying to attract visitors this winter.

Gregg Confer, general manager of Elk Mountain Ski Resort in Herrick Twp., Susquehanna County, has been associated with the resort for nearly four decades and noted the recent weather has been an anomaly.

"It seems every Thursday, except for one, we had rain," he said. "It gets discouraging, especially after making snow and getting the mountain in great shape. This is definitely one of the warmest winters we've ever had."

Confer added the lack of snow is disappointing for resort officials and outdoor enthusiasts.

"It's discouraging for us, and the general public also comes out a lot more when it snows," he said. "We can produce good, quality snow with the guns but people just like the natural snow. They like to look out their windows and see it. It brings more skiers to the slopes."

Confer believes Elk developed a strong reputation for having quality snow over its more than 60 years in business.

"We've always prided ourselves on making and grooming snow," he said. "We keep pushing ahead and it seems to work. People realize if there is going to be good skiing, Elk will have it."

Elk Mountain usually wraps up operations in mid- to late March. Confer remains optimistic the season might end on a positive note.

"Our skier visit count was down," he said. "It's been a crazy year, there's no doubt, but as finicky as this weather has been we could very well get a March snowstorm."

Elk Mountain closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day due to the forecast for single-digit temperatures and high winds. The resort also closed Jan. 4 due to extended rain in the forecast.

Despite the challenges, Elk had 25 of its 27 trails open Thursday.

Tyler Crawford, director of resort relations for Montage Mountain in Scranton, finds the inconsistency of the weather most frustrating.

"We've actually had some of the best snowmaking weather in a couple seasons this year," he said. "It was very cold in December and January ... it's just trying to make enough snow when it's cold."

Crawford always welcomes a fresh coat of natural snow but added it's not a necessity for maintaining operations.

"Most of the snow at a lot of different mountains in Pennsylvania is man-made," he said. "A couple inches of natural snow here or there is great to see, and it gets people excited, but not having it doesn't really affect the ski season."

While warmer weather damages the snowpack, Crawford noted some guests prefer higher temperatures while hitting the slopes.

"Every skier, snow tuber or snowboarder all have their ideal conditions," he said. "I love skiing when it's warm, some people love skiing when it's cold, and this winter we've definitely had a nice variety for any kind of skier."

Live music and campfires each weekend complement activity on the snow at Montage, Crawford said.

"Even if you're not a skier, there is plenty of stuff to do outside whether it's cold or warm," he said. "It's a great place to spend a weekend."

Montage Mountain closed Jan. 3-5 and Jan. 19 due to the weather conditions.

"Every season comes with its own challenges," Crawford said. "We just have to be patient and wait for the colder weather to come."

On Thursday, 18 of Montage's 27 trails were open.

A dip in temperatures heading into Presidents Day weekend may allow resorts to extend the ski season.

"We'll be able to pick snowmaking back up and hopefully bring us to late March," Crawford said.

Snowfall totals for Pleasant Mount, near Elk Mountain, were down 10.4 inches in January compared to the average of 17.3 inches, according to data from the National Weather Service.

The average high temperature was 8.4 degrees warmer than normal during the month.

Snowfall totals measured at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport were down 9.2 inches in January compared to the average of 11.7 inches, according to the NWS. The average high temperature was up 6.6 degrees.

Molly Coneybeer, marketing director for Camelback Resort in Pocono Twp., credits the snowmaking and operations teams for keeping the mountain in good shape.

"It's been a rough winter for the industry and the sport as a whole, but our skiers and riders are happy," she said. "Despite the abnormally warm temperatures, conditions have been really great. We've been holding strong with 36 of 39 open trails and slopes."

Ashley Seier, marketing director for Blue Mountain Resort in Lower Towamensing Twp., Carbon County, said colder evenings have helped the resort maintain its snowpack.

"The weather has been all over the place this year," she said. "It's been an interesting winter in the fact that it's been so warm during the day, but it's still been cold at night. All in all, we're pretty impressed with how we pulled through given the weather conditions. We took full advantage every time we got a low enough temperature to make snow and really stockpiled it."

At Blue Mountain, 35 of the 40 trails were open Thursday.

Snowmobiling hurt, too

Sean Sheare, vice president of Forest City-based NEP Sno & ATV Trails Club, added this winter has been the most difficult snowmobiling season he can remember in about 15 years.

"This is probably the toughest one on us yet," he said. "We're usually banking on about six weeks of riding across the season and we've barely gotten anything in. We only had about five or six days of riding right before Christmas and then we had to shut down when it warmed up real fast."

He added conditions were "marginal" the few times riders were able to hit the trails.

"We're looking for a deep freeze," Sheare said. "You want to get some snow across a couple different storms so you can pack the snow base up."

Despite continued allegiance from longstanding members, registrations were down more than 30% this year, Sheare said.

"We have a core group that supports us no matter what, but we've had very few in-season registrations," he said.

While a March snowstorm would provide a boost to ski resorts, the impact wouldn't be the same for snowmobilers, Sheare said.

"The problem is the ground is not frozen whatsoever," he said. "When the snow comes, it doesn't stay. If we get riding, we're going to have to make it spring conditions where we can't groom. We won't have the really nice, paved trails."

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