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Unfriendly Skies 

Mountain resorts are at the whims of the weather — and at first, it just wouldn't cooperate

click to enlarge The scene at Mount Spokane in early January. - KRISTEN WHITAKER
  • kristen whitaker
  • The scene at Mount Spokane in early January.

Like farmers in a drought, local ski and snowboard resorts spent the first few months of the season staring, pleadingly, toward the heavens.

"The start — you know, Thanksgiving, early December — was a bit of the struggle," says Neal Scholey, director of marketing at Silver Mountain. "We were all on our knees, praying to the skies, going 'Come on, man!'"

Their Christmas gift came a day late: On Dec. 26 and 27, finally, Silver got the big dump of snow it'd been waiting for and could open their terrain to the post-Christmas crowd. By now, most runs are open and thriving.

Local resorts knew that a mild appearance of El Niño could put a crimp on the season. But this year, the weather has been particularly frustrating.

"I don't know if I'd say if it was warmer or colder. It's just been spotty, is the thing," says Eric Bakken, general manager of 49 Degrees North. "We haven't got the big, long, sustained series of storms."

They didn't open until Dec. 22. "I've been here 18 years," says Bakken. "This was our latest opening, for sure." When the snowstorms finally started rolling in this past month, they came as a relief. By now, Silver's racked up 118 inches of snowfall, about typical for this time in the season.

Schweitzer Mountain Resort, by contrast, had an advantage: When the skies refused to give them snow, Schweitzer made it themselves. This summer, Schweitzer upgraded their snowmaking capabilities, and the cold, dry air of the early winter made for the perfect climate for their snow machines.

"We shoot to open after Thanksgiving. We were able to open the weekend before that," says Sean Mirus, marketing director.

In fact, Schweitzer's 95 inches of snowfall actually exceed last season by a foot. The problem is that, each time, a big dump of snow has been countered by a downpour of rain.

"The rain really kills the snowpack... You'll lose more snow in the rain than on a nice, sunny day," Mirus says. "This past Monday [last week] was a perfect example. Monday morning: 12 to 18 inches of snow. And then the rain followed."

In other words, it's not enough to just root for precipitation. It has to be the right kind. ♦

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