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No snow? Big problem for US ski resorts

The lack of snow this year is creating big problems for ski resorts nationwide. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.

Let it snow: words that skiers and employees of resorts around the country are fervently repeating as flakes resist falling on slopes from California to New England.

“It’s been a slow start for us,” said Ethan Austin, spokesman at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine, the largest ski area east of the Rockies. The resort had little snowfall in December, so they’ve been relying on snow-making equipment to keep their slopes open, Austin said.

“Right now we don’t have a whole lot in terms of natural snow, around 25 to 30 inches,” he said. “That’s quite a bit below average.” The resort currently has 28 trails open; 65 to 70 open trails is typical for this time of year.

Across the country, at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in California, the snowmakers are on as well, said spokeswoman Joani Lynch. “We are, safe to say, off to a slow start.”

It’s all the more painful for skiers spoiled by the 2010-2011 ski season’s bumper crop of snow, which broke records at some resorts. “We have 1 to 2 feet right now, mostly man-made snow,” Lynch said. “We had a very, very dry December -- just 2 inches. We got 200 inches last year just in December.”

The economic impact of low snowfall may not be significant for many destination resorts, because most, especially in the West, have invested heavily in snow-making machines that do a decent job, said Ralf Garrison, director and senior industry analyst at the Mountain Travel Research Program in Colorado. Most resorts have also worked at expanding non-slope activities such as dining and entertainment options, from spas to ice skating to nightlife, making it easier to entertain guests when snow is low.

“The economic salvation of the mountain resort industry is based on destination guests who travel from afar and make reservations significantly in advance,” Garrison said. “If there’s an adequate man-made [snow] product, destination guests find that adequate.”

Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, said that while many resorts are relying on man-made snow, ski areas in Arizona, New Mexico and southern California are doing well, which is almost an inversion of the normal pattern for this time of year. Ski areas in other parts of the country have had four or five years in a row of adequate to great snow, so most will be able to wait for a big dump or two to kick-start the slow beginning of this season, he said.

“This is not the first time nor will it be the last to have this happen,” Berry said. “We’re a weather dependent industry.”

At Mount Bachelor in central Oregon, a storm forecast for mid-week and New Year's weekend is raising hopes the season might be turning around.

“With this storm coming through, we’re getting rain at bottom and snow at top and accumulating,” said Mount Bachelor marketing director Andy Goggins. “That’s where we’re fortunate to have the tallest resort peak in the Cascades at 9,000 feet. We’re just crossing our fingers it will cool off more.”

Luckily, they’ve been able to maintain a consistent level of snow, Goggins said. “We’ve had a 3-foot snowpack for the month of December and only lost a couple of inches. We have a lot of acres open.”

But it’s nothing like last season, he added wistfully: “We got pretty spoiled last year with all the snow. At this date last year, we had a 77-inch base depth, compared to 32 inches now.”

The lack of a cold winter have hurt retailers trying to sell cold-weather apparel, reports CNBC's Courtney Reagan.

 

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