Warm December Wilts Holiday Season at Northeastern Ski Resorts

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Snowmakers at ski destinations such as Okemo Mountain Resort, pictured here in December 2015, are working to counter unusually warm weather that has prevented trails from opening and caused hotel cancellations. Okemo Mountain Resort

Ski resorts and mountains in the northeastern United States are suffering in an unseasonably warm December. At 12 popular ski destinations, only 182 of 1,154 trails were open on Tuesday, or about 16 percent. That percentage is significantly down from previous years, the resorts say.

On Tuesday in Vermont, Stratton Mountain Ski Resort had nine of 94 trails open, Smugglers' Notch Resort had 10 of 78 and Killington had 24 of 155. In New York, Windham Mountain had four of 54 and Whiteface Mountain had nine of 80. In New Hampshire, Wildcat Mountain Ski Area had seven of 48 and Loon Mountain had 17 of 61. In Maine, Sugarloaf had 19 of 154 and Sunday River had 33 of 135.

North of the border, in Quebec, Mont Tremblant Ski Resort had 17 of 96. This time last year, Mont Tremblant had 46 open, a spokeswoman says.

"Operating a ski resort is a little like farming—we approach every season with optimism and we are at the mercy of the elements," Bonnie MacPherson, a spokeswoman for Okemo Mountain Resort, says by email. With 26 of 120 trails open, Okemo, in Vermont, has one of the highest percentages of trails open (nearly 22 percent) among its competitors. MacPherson credits that largely to the resort's spending $1 million over the past three years to enhance snowmaking infrastructure and technology.

Still, Okemo is behind where it was this time last year (113 trails) and has experienced guest cancellations. MacPherson describes bookings there as "a roller coaster ride."

"The warm weather really kind of put a damper on things and people started to cancel," MacPherson says. Then last week, when the area got more snow, "the phones started ringing off the hook."

Jay Peak, another major Vermont ski resort, also has fewer trails and more cancellations. "It's definitely a little bit of a punch in the nose with regards to this year compared to last year," says spokesman JJ Toland. The resort has seven of its 78 trails open; this time last year, it had 68. "We've had a number of cancellations," Toland says. At full occupancy, the resort houses 3,000 people in its hotels, cottages and condominiums. Toland estimates only 2,400 people are currently staying there. Fortunately, those guests have access to an indoor ice rink and water park, which Toland says the resort built in recent years in case of warm weather.

On smaller mountains, the unusual temperatures are cutting even deeper into business. Neither Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts nor Catamount Ski Area in New York has opened yet for the season. "All it takes is a few degrees one way or another and we can make snow or not make snow. It's just a wait-and-see right now," says Rich Edwards, marketing director at Catamount. Opening late means a significant financial loss, he adds. "You can't get it all back…. I don't think we'll be able to make up for all the lost time." He is uncertain when Catamount will open, though he says he hopes for early January.

The warm weather is also hurting ski instructors. Douglas Schwartz, who has taught at Stratton since 1997, says attendance for lessons is way down. Typically this time of year he teaches groups of 10 to 20 kids at a time, he says, but these days he has four to eight. His colleagues who teach private lessons have it even worse, teaching just one to three lessons a day instead of the usual 10. "The guys were hurting," he says. "This year's been the toughest one that I can remember for quite some time."

Stores that sell ski and snowboarding gear are experiencing a slump too. "Traffic has slowed down," says Neil Kornblatt, owner of Sno-Haus Ski Shops on Long Island. "I'm paid to be optimistic. Most of us are pretty optimistic or we wouldn't still be in business. The pessimistic ones probably left a long time ago."

If there's one industry that actually does better when the snow doesn't fall like it should, it's snowmaker manufacturers. "Our sales have grown as we play an important role in allowing resorts to open in the face of these challenges," Charles Santry, president of HKD Snowmakers, a longtime supplier to Okemo, says by email. This year, "fan" snow guns are among their popular products, which cover more terrain.

According to AccuWeather, Christmas Eve could be the warmest on record in certain parts of the northeast, with expected temperatures in the 50s, 60s and even 70s.

That forecast might have skiers traveling to other parts of the country to hit the slopes. Heather Fried, managing editor of the skiing website OnTheSnow, says by email that conditions are much better in the western states: "It's like the coasts have flipped from one season to the next. The East was the place to be last season and now the West is getting hammered with some much-needed snow after an especially rough four years in California." Because of El Niño, she adds, the pacific northwest is getting substantial snowfall.

"I'm hoping people won't lose heart," says MacPherson, the Okemo spokeswoman. "This is just the beginning of winter."

Warm December Wilts Holiday Season at Northeastern Ski Resorts | Culture