After Warm Start to Snow Season, Colorado Resorts Look for Relief
Record high temperatures have left mountain resorts across the state reliant on artificial snow. Winter storms predicted for this week could change that.
Skiers walked on exposed pavement in Summit County, Colo., last week. Colorado’s snow season has gotten off to a slow start.Credit…Jason Connolly/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
An unusually warm and dry start to Colorado’s snow season has left many of the state’s mountain resorts wholly dependent on artificial snow, to the growing frustration of winter sports enthusiasts.
Across the state, there has been scant snowfall and record high temperatures. In Denver, more than 230 days have passed without snow, the city’s second-longest such stretch in more than a century. The snow, when it does come, will the be latest ever to fall in Denver.
Colorado’s mountain resorts are looking to storm systems predicted for Thursday and Friday to reset the pace for the season. They are hoping for several feet of snow in some areas. In Denver, only a few inches may fall, but it’s the “best chance we’ve seen for snow in a while,” Bernie Meier, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Boulder, said.
Mr. Meier said the state’s snowpack, the layers of snow accumulated in the mountains, is about half of what it should be.
“We’re not very far into the snow season at least, so there is time to make up that deficit,” he said. “Right now, it’s been a slow start.”
This year is shaping up to be among the five hottest years in Colorado history, Brad Rippey, a meteorologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said.
More than half the country experienced drought conditions through the end of November, and this fall was the third warmest recorded, according to data released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was the second-warmest fall in Colorado, as well as in Montana and Wyoming, which are also popular with skiers.
Russ Schumacher, the director of the Colorado Climate Center, said the state had experienced a warming trend over the past two decades. This is “the climate change signal in its clearest form,” he said, adding that Colorado’s exacerbated drought conditions affected other states that rely on its water.
“We have a long history of water challenges in the West, of course, and climate change is making those worse,” Mr. Schumacher said. “The snow that falls in our mountains in Colorado is the biggest natural reservoir of water that ends up running downstream to many other states.”
Colorado’s ski resorts often depend on snow machines early in the season. This year’s warm temperatures statewide have sharply limited snow-making, which can be conducted only at colder temperatures. This has led resorts to delay opening dates and significantly reduce the amount of terrain open to the public.
Snow-making machines were used at Colorado’s Purgatory Resort last month.Credit…Purgatory Resort
Despite warm temperatures in southwestern Colorado, Purgatory Resort in the San Juan Mountains opened on time the weekend before Thanksgiving after some “fairly good snow-making,” Dave Rathbun, the resort’s general manager, said. The resort’s season generally lasts through mid-April, he added.
“The technology improvements have really helped us outwit Mother Nature,” Mr. Rathbun said. “We are basically snow farmers. We always play the cards we are dealt.”
About 5 percent of the mountain is open, although snow showers predicted for the remainder of this week could soon change that.
At Steamboat Ski Resort in northwestern Colorado, five of the mountain’s 170 trails are open. Loryn Duke, a spokeswoman for the resort, said this season had been the warmest that she could recall in the decade and a half that she had worked there.
Ms. Duke said that all the snow at the resort so far this season had been artificially produced, although more than two feet of snow was expected to fall this week.
“I always think it’s incredible that it’s a billion-dollar industry that depends on something you have zero control over,” Ms. Duke said.
Skiers said they were cautiously eying the weather and forecasts of snow.
Phillip Luxner, 44, of Denver, said he waited until the “last minute” to purchase an Epic ski pass, which grants access to numerous resorts throughout the season. He said he had bought his passes on Sunday, while sitting on his patio in 60-degree weather wearing shorts and sandals.
“Buying ski passes in flip-flops feels weird,” Mr. Luxner said, noting that he did not plan to head out to the slopes soon. He said he would wait for a series of significant snowstorms to hit and for the resorts to open more terrain.
“I have no desire to ski up there on a green run with a thousand people,” he said.
Collin Race Fenimore, 27, said his first ski trip of the season on Friday at Summit County’s Copper Mountain Resort had been uncomfortably hot. The slopes had started out icy in the morning and then turned to slush, he said, adding that only a few lifts and ski runs had been open.
“It was probably a high of 50 degrees, but it really felt like 75 with your ski clothes on,” Mr. Fenimore said. “Early season is never great snow, but I’ve never really been a part of one that’s been this bad. So it’s definitely a bummer, and I’m hoping we get some more snow.”
Resorts are hoping to make up for the steep losses they incurred when pandemic restrictions shut down all Colorado ski areas in March 2020, during the high season. The closings reduced ski visits by about four million, Melanie Mills, president and chief executive officer of Colorado Ski Country USA, said.
That season was devastating, said Alan Henceroth, chief operating officer of Arapahoe Basin in the Rocky Mountains.
“This is a really big year for us,” he said. Referring to the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, he added, “We were coming off a horrible year and then a year that was pretty good, considering, and we need to have a good year.”
Mountain resorts did steady business last season, operating through midspring under local and state Covid-19 restrictions, Ms. Mills said. These mandatory regulations, such as capacity limits and reservations, have since been lifted.
Mr. Henceroth said that sales at Arapahoe Basin were stronger than expected last year. The resounding message was that people wanted to be on the slopes, he said.
“I think people really wanted to ski, or ride their bike, do whatever,” Mr. Henceroth said. “So many parts of all of our lives were thwarted, they wanted to get out and do stuff.”
Every ski season is important, Mr. Luxner said, adding that he didn’t want his children to miss out on a cherished pastime.
“I want to make sure my kids have the same opportunities I did when I was growing up out here, which is to get out to the mountains,” he said. “We don’t have the beach. We’ve got this.”