Western ski resorts wrapping unpredictable season

By Jeri Clausing

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, April 4 2012 2:30 a.m. MDT

FILE - In a March 14, 2012 file photo a snowboarder heads back up the mountain on a lift at Boreal Mountain Resort near Truckee Calif. Western ski resorts, including many in Northern California, are wrapping up one of the whackiest seasons in recent memory, with some locations hoping to erase double-digit declines in skier visits with a bounty of record snow that didn’t come until March.

Reno Gazette-Journal, David B. Parker) NO SALES, Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Western ski resorts are wrapping up one of the most unusual and unpredictable snow seasons in recent memory.

New Mexico, traditionally warmer and with less reliable snowfall than its northern neighbors, this weekend celebrates the end of an unexpectedly good season that that withstood consistent forecasts of drought.

"It was the kind of season no one saw coming," said Dave Dekema, director of marketing for Angel Fire resort. "The predictions from the preseason to the end were completely wrong."

Meanwhile, some resorts in the traditionally snow-rich states of Utah and Colorado will close earlier after a warm season with lackluster snow.

And California and Nevada are hoping to erase double-digit declines in skier visits with a bounty of snow that didn't begin falling until almost March.

Colorado resorts reported skier visits were down more than 7 percent. And California was reporting double digit declines in lift ticket sales before the late February reprieve.

Even so, the news was not all bad.

Thanks to increased consumer spending and rising hotel rates that have accompanied the slow economic recovery, destination resorts were faring well despite the lack of snow, said Ralf Garrison, director of the Denver-based Mountain Travel Research Program, which tracks lodging at Western ski resorts.

The early season was especially strong, thanks to advance bookings.

"Over the Christmas holidays, the destination guests who came and didn't find snow to their liking" shopped, went to the spa, ate and partied, Garrison said,

"Vail's December sales tax was an all-time record. That's very surprising when you know there is no snow and skiers aren't coming until you realize the destination guest is really driving the economy. The numbers are really good on the destination side. Lift tickets, not so much."

Garrison said occupancy at ski resorts will likely be down slightly for the season, but rates were up over last year, creating a mostly flat end result.

In the town of Taos, spokeswoman Cathy Connelly, said some lodgers estimated visitor numbers were up as much as 20 percent over last year, when New Mexico ski resorts suffered through one of the driest seasons in recent memory.

At Taos Ski Valley, marketing manager Adriana Blake said skier visits were up about 10,000 over last year, but that New Mexico visits were still held back by reports of bad snow elsewhere.

"Spring was slower than I thought it would be, simply because people thought ... winter was over," Blake said.

Ed Polasko, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said the La Nina weather pattern, a phenomenon based on cooler than normal water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, was responsible for keeping parts of the West unusually dry. "It relented a little now and then to let the storm track take the driver's seat," he said. "And then it was all in the timing."

California's ski season started dry and dismal, with the resorts that circle Lake Tahoe missing the crowds of skiers that usually descend during the Christmas-New Year's, Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidents Day holidays.

But that turned around in late February when a series of late winter storms began dumping on the Sierra Nevada.

Amelia Richmond, a spokeswoman for Squaw Valley, said this has been one of the strangest winters California has seen in many years.

"It's very rare to have a season like this," she said. "We got a late start to it, but since the end of February, we've had some really wonderful conditions up here unexpectedly."

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