If temperatures were warm and snow scarce, winter has been long for snowmaking crews at most ski resorts of the West. For many, the work typically ends by Christmas or at least early January.
Not this year. Snowmaking continues even as storms have now arrived.
With the rockiest start to winter in decades at many resorts, some locations will probably re-evaluate investments in water, snowguns and other infrastructure, say officials involved with the ski industry.
"Snowmaking is something you can never take for granted," says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association and a former supervisor of snowmaking crews.
"It takes constant upgrading, constant improvements, constant effort to improve your water rights. And just when you think you don't need it is the year you will need it the most," he added. "There's no more stark juxtaposition than last year compared to this year all across the mountain West."
Spanked by two hard-luck winters in 1976-77 and 1980-81, Steamboat and most other Colorado destination ski areas have invested heavily in snowmaking.
This investment paid off this year for Steamboat. Despite warm nights that idled snowmaking crews during parts of November and December, the ski area had 1,900 acres, or 65 per cent of the terrain, open at Christmas. That was among the best in Colorado. Only two ski areas, Durango and Wolf Creek, both located in the state's southern tier, were 100 per cent open.
But while locals and a few visitors grimaced about the hard-pack, few complaints were voiced by the well-heeled and mostly intermediate skiers that frequent places like Vail and Snowmass during Christmas.
Last summer, Steamboat purchased seven new snowmaking guns. The new guns, which are elevated higher above the ground, use 30 per cent less energy, partly because they require less compressed air to shoot the particles across slopes.
Water is a vital component of snowmaking. At Breckenridge, where snowmaking continued as of Jan. 21, the ski area had consumed 900 acre-feet as of Jan. 21, compared to the normal 700 to 750 acre-feet, according to Glenn Porzak, the resort's water lawyer.
Not all resorts have substantial snowmaking systems, however. Particularly, the ski areas located along the crest of California's Sierra Nevada suffered with almost no natural snow and just thin ribbons of man-made snow.
"It was just remarkable. I don't think I have ever been in a mountain area in the latter of part of January where there was so little snow," said Porzak after a ski industry meeting at California's Squaw Valley. "It was brutal."
Porzak has helped ski areas in Colorado and other Western states secure water rights for snowmaking since the 1970s. After every significant drought, ski areas have invested heavily in additional snowmaking capabilities. The more well heeled have invested even when no drought is imminent.