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."
Heavenly Mountain Resort on Lake Tahoe's south shore relied on snowmaking to get through the first months of the season before the dramatic turnaround, spokesman Russ Pecoraro said.
"I wouldn't go so far as to call it a 'Miracle March,' but we definitely did get a lot of snow. We're looking forward to a fun April."
In Colorado, the statewide snowpack was only 60 percent of average last week. Monarch Mountain moved up its closing day by one week to April 8 due to a lack of spring snow and warm, melting conditions. Arapahoe Basin, which stayed open until July 4 last season, tentatively plans to close in early June this year. Resorts in southwest Colorado still have decent bases, but SolVista Basin in northern Colorado was reporting just 21 inches of snow at mid-mountain last week.
The trade group Colorado Ski Country USA's says skier visits through Feb. 29 at its 22 member resorts were down 7.4 percent from the same period last season, when some resorts had record-setting snowfall.
Utah had its worst winter for snowfall in many years, but a bad winter in Utah would be a great season almost anywhere else. Alta had 327 inches by Friday, which is far below last year's 565 inches, but still way above the 216 inches recorded at Taos this week.
"It won't be a record-breaker for us, but we survived better than other places in the western U.S.," Ski Utah spokeswoman Jessica Kunzer said.
Visitors to Utah resorts held onto advance bookings, but local skiers turned their nose on the skimpy snow season, said Snowbird's Emily Moench.
Snowbird keeps Utah's longest ski season, which lasted until July 4 last year. This year it will switch to a weekend schedule on May 18, "if we make it that far," Moench said.
Like New Mexico, Wyoming reported a strong season thanks to good, timely snows that missed other ski areas to the south.
"We got snow at the right time and the product has held up really, really well," Anna Olson, spokeswoman for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in northwest Wyoming, which received 362 inches of snow so far this ski season. Other major resorts in the Rockies have gotten around 200 inches or less.
"We're yards ahead of other resorts," Olson said.
New Mexico opened the season with some of the best conditions in the country. Sandia Peak, for example, on the outskirts of Albuquerque, had a 64-inch base on Christmas Day.
And after a few weeks of spring and summer like temperatures across New Mexico, a spring storm dumped 14 inches of fresh powder on Taos and Sipapu ski mountains on Monday and Tuesday, prompting Sipapu to reopen for a week.
"We're not done!" Blake said Monday, noting Taos was planning to wrap up its season on schedule Sunday.
Staff writers Catherine Tsai in Denver, Bob Moen in Cheyenne, Hannah Dreier in Sacramento and Paul Foy in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
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