As the skiing and snowboarding season is almost a memory, except for the diehards who’ll visit Maine’s last operating area, Sugarloaf, until the final chair goes up sometime in early May, let’s see how the season stacked up in the eyes of both skiers and boarders, and the operators and owners of the state’s ski areas.
Speaking for the former, I think it’s safe to say the winter was a mixed bag. While in the case of Sugarloaf we were able to get out on the hill before Thanksgiving as in years past, we could thank the snowmakers for allowing us to do so.
We were all encouraged when an early December storm dumped a great base on most of the mountains, and provided some wonderful holiday conditions. Then came the drought – at least in the western mountains – until just before Valentine’s Day, punctuated by some of the coldest and most unpleasant weather conditions most of us have experienced in years. It was followed, finally, by some timely storms, diminishing winds and warmer temperatures, leading to some of the best March and April conditions in memory.
The season was marked by the huge difference in conditions depending on where and when you skied. While the weather gods refused to bless the mountain resorts with snow in January and February, the coastal plain received several significant storms. The Camden Snow Bowl was a beneficiary of this phenomenon, which contributed to a very successful year at the community-owned facility. The bad news was that the areas to the west and north could only watch the weather maps with envy.
And when you were able to get on the trails made a huge difference. Most skiers are weekenders, and as the Sugarloaf president, John Diller, said, “Sunny Saturdays can make a huge difference on our bottom line. That’s the day that makes the difference, and until the last month and a half we didn’t have very many good ones.”
And how was it for the operators? Again, a mixed bag. Revitalized Big Squaw in Greenville had a great season thanks to snows that arrived starting in late February. Sandy McFarland, a weekend ski patrolman at Squaw since 1971, said to me on a recent day there, “Isn’t it fun to ski on natural snow?” And it was, with plenty of cover on the trails thanks to March storms. In fact, shortly before my visit, the area sold its 5,000th ticket for the season.
Thanks to snowmaking, areas like Shawnee Peak were able to weather the drought and have what General Manager Ed Rock called “a better year than last year in terms of skier visits.” For several weeks before Shawnee’s April 6 closing, business was brisk and conditions were outstanding.
The darkest cloud over the season for many operators was the need to run snow guns more than any year in recent memory. Chris Farmer of Saddleback told me, “We made more snow this year than ever, and although we were able to negotiate a power rate that didn’t kill us, many ski areas saw their electricity costs go through the roof.”
Sugarloaf’s Diller said, “We had to make about 5-6 percent more snow this year than normal just to assure decent conditions, but our electricity costs were so high there were times we just couldn’t afford to run the guns. We even ran lifts with the diesel auxiliaries during those coldest days when peak demand on the system was so high.”
“At some points our rates went to some 50 cents per kilowatt hour,” Diller said, “a devastating expense, provoking us to exceed our snowmaking budget by over $300,000. But we had to do it.”
Fortunately, March at the Loaf was great, April bookings have been strong, and when the season winds down in early May there may well be plenty of smiles on management’s faces.
So it’s so long to the 2013-14 season, and the wait begins for next winter.
John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son, Josh, write columns on alternating weeks. He can be reached at: [email protected]