Ski resorts, slopes get busy with influx of snow and wintry weather

Jan. 21—Ali Kander knew it was going to be cold, but family tradition is family tradition.

"I learned to ski when I was 5, and she's 5," Kander said while pointing to her daughter, Elle, as the mother-daughter duo from Pittsburgh's Point Breeze neighborhood prepared to make their first runs of the day late Saturday morning on the Boyce Park ski slopes.

"We're willing to brave the cold, and we're going to be out for a couple of hours. My parents tried to tell me not to go, but I said we're going to bundle up. It's just about how good and warm your gear is."

They were among the hundreds of skiers who shrugged off the frigid temperatures to careen down the hills that were covered by a new layer of snow that fell over the previous 24 hours.

Boyce Park sold out its weekend ski and tubing passes before it opened Saturday morning, according to manager Paul Toman. The Allegheny County park, which sits on the border of Monroeville and Plum, saw 500 skiers and 400 tubers brave the cold temperatures.

"The cold temperatures bring people out," Toman said.

The recent snows and cold snap were also a boon for skiers in the Laurel Highlands.

Officials at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, in Champion; Hidden Valley Resort, in Hidden Valley; and Laurel Mountain, east of Laughlintown,

reported nearly all of their slopes and trails were open Saturday.

The resorts have received 68 inches of snow so far this season. They saw just 46 inches of white powder all of last year.

Brett Cook, vice president and general manager of Vail's three Laurel Highlands resorts, admits he's obsessed with checking the weather.

"We look at as many different opinions as we can," Cook said. "I like to think that the coldest ones and the ones that have the most snow forecast are the best, obviously, but we know they can be all over the place."

Vail's resorts make a lot of their own snow, but natural snow helps draw people out to the slopes, he says.

"Everyone starts thinking of snowboarding and skiing and winter fun when we have natural snow," Cook said. "We look at trends. And the way the season has been trending with the weather up till now is trending in a favorable direction for us."

At the same time, Cook says he doesn't judge the success of the ski season on how much natural snow falls.

"As long as we get the temperatures, we can make the snow," he said. "The natural snow is a bonus."

Most of the time, the resorts can't make artificial snow at the same time as it's snowing, unless temperatures are very low and the humidity is right, he said.

"Mother Nature does a pretty good job of it when it comes time, so we appreciate the help," he said. "The snow we are seeing is a fluffy, fun, dry snow, which is really, really great conditions.

"I think these are probably going to be some of the best conditions we have seen in recent years, and I expect a lot of people to come out and take advantage of it."

That's was the case for Melissa Mong, 34, of Monroeville as she prepared to head out to the Boyce Park slopes.

Mong grew up in New Castle and Buffalo and learned to ski in Argentina before moving about two years ago with her husband to Western Pennsylvania.

"I try to do anything I can outside and I'm an outdoorsy kind of girl," Mong said. "The fresh powder makes the skiing experience better. Whenever there is fresh snow, it's better to ski." .

Busy time

Christmas, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day weekends are usually the busiest at the resorts, said Craig Rosman, owner of Route 31 Bike, Board & Ski in Somerset.

Rosman has already had better business this year than he did last year — not as many people are coming into his store so far, he says, but those who do have been spending more money.

Visitors from out of town are flocking more and more to Pennsylvania Vail resorts, he said, with the start of the "Epic Pass" last year, which is a season-long deal through Vail Resorts that allows pass holders to visit any of the company's facilities.

"Other people who are coming here, their resorts aren't even open because of the snow situation (in their local resorts)," he said.

This weekend is set to be another well-attended one, he said, and he's been stocking his store to match the demand.

"I have advanced setups, I have a big stack of them," Rosman said.

Learning to ski

At Boyce Park, many new skiers and snowboarders take advantage of beginning ski classes to learn their way around the slopes.

According to Andrew Grobe, deputy director for Allegheny County Parks, the park has seen 4,450 people so far this season. That's down a little from last year, but Grobe is expecting the numbers to catch up over the next week.

"We're expecting our biggest crowd of the year for this weekend," he said. "We've been making snow pretty heavy these last seven days, (and) hopefully we'll be able to make enough for the next 48 hours and the previous seven days to get us through our whole season."

Walk-up lessons and affordable prices often bring families to Boyce, he said.

"Every year comes around and we have a big group of people, and when they learn and they get a little bit better, we kind of let them graduate to Seven Springs, Hidden Valley and Laurel Mountain," he said. "But every year, we get a new crop of people wanting to learn."

That's the plan for the Meehan family. Leah Meehan, 38, along with husband Blake and children Grant, 11, Gabriel, 10, and Lydia, 7, made their yearly trip to Boyce Park to ski, snowboard and tube.

"This is our first time this year," Meehan said. "I'm scared of heights so going up the ski lift can be a challenge, but it's a big reward when you go down the mountain. I like to show I can get out of my comfort zone, and they can, too.

"The kids are also counting how many times Mom is going to fall."