It’s official. The 2011-12 ski season was the worst in 20 years. That’s according to the National Ski Areas Association’s (NSAA) preliminary end-of-season survey released last week. Nationwide, skier visits were down by more than 15%, to their lowest levels since the 1991-92 ski season. The season was characterized by low snowfall and mild winter weather across nearly the entire U.S.
All this comes as no surprise to skiers or anyone who enjoys winter outdoor recreation in the Adirondacks. Natural snowfall was sparse, and a lack of cold temperatures hampered snowmaking operations all season long. By the end of March, every ski area in New York State had closed for the season, casualties of the month’s record-setting warmth. Jon Lundin, Public Relations Coordinator for the Olympic Region Development Authority (ORDA), which operates the Gore and Whiteface Mountain ski centers, estimates a 14% decrease in visitation across all of ORDA’s venues for the 2011-12 season.
Although the slow start and early end to the ski season were disappointing to skiers and ski area operators alike, there is something of a silver lining in the numbers: ORDA’s 14% decline stacks up favorably compared to the more than 20% decline reported in the NSAA survey for ski areas in the Northeast region. Lundin attributes ORDA’s relative success to the strength of its off-mountain activities and also the efforts of Gore’s and Whiteface’s snowmaking and grooming crews. “Both crews, at Whiteface and Gore, had their snowmaking and grooming dialed in. There may not have been the quantity – number of trails, number of days, inches of snowfall – compared to last year, but the quality was outstanding.”
At Gore Mountain, upgrades to the snowmaking plant last summer played a big role in helping the ski area cope with the mild winter. Mike Pratt, Gore’s General Manager, commented “the timing of our new high efficiency snow guns couldn’t have been better.” The new guns can be operated at marginal temperatures and use up to 80% less energy. Pratt figures the new guns saved more than $100,000 in energy costs for the 2011-12 season, and should pay for themselves in 4 years or less. Pratt also talked about other adaptations his crews made to the winter’s operations. “We used our resources to provide the best possible conditions. At times we chose to deepen bases and re-surface open trails rather than attempt to expand our trail count. Even though we only received half our normal snowfall, we made our glades and natural snow terrain available to skiers at every possible opportunity.”
Personally, I’m inclined to agree with Lundin and Pratt: conditions at Gore and Whiteface this winter were consistently better than I expected. I logged the majority of my ski days at Gore (just about every weekend), and made it up to Whiteface several times as well. All told I got in around three dozen ski days, comparable to my total for the previous ski season (but nothing compared to this guy). And like most other skiers, I’m already looking forward to a colder, snowier 2012-13.