By this time of year, Lisa Cleveland and Carolyn Burnham normally would be on the slopes, swooshing through heaps of fresh powder while their children were entertained at ski school...
By this time of year, Lisa Cleveland and Carolyn Burnham normally would be on the slopes, swooshing through heaps of fresh powder while their children were entertained at ski school.
Instead, the two West Seattle friends escorted Girl Scout Troop No. 698 to The Summit at Snoqualmie on Tuesday in hot pursuit of their daughters’ “Frosty Fun” badge, which involved snow sculpting, snowshoeing and learning how to dress well for cold weather.
Welcome to one of the latest and most-dismal starts to Washington’s ski season in recent memory. The state’s ski industry usually attracts about 1.8 million skiers and snowboarders annually, according to Ski Washington.
But because of warmer-than-usual temperatures and heavy rainfall this month, most ski areas have remained closed so far, leaving skiers disappointed, seasonal employees out of work and ski resorts worrying about their bottom line.
“Think of us as a retailer with a four-month selling season,” said Jon Pretty, marketing manager for The Summit. “The fact that we lost two weeks already is not a good thing.”
The resort’s average opening date is the first weekend in December. It needs 18 to 24 inches of compacted snow to welcome skiers; earlier this week there were about 10 inches. Most of the Summit’s 1,100 seasonal workers are effectively unemployed, waiting for the white stuff and with it word that their jobs have begun.
Skiers, too, are getting restless. “We’re bummed,” said Burnham, who helped her daughters and their Girl Scout friends fasten their snowshoes at one of The Summit’s almost-deserted lodges. “But we have to take what we can get.”
Seven new snow guns were put to work manufacturing snow Sunday, but without truly cold temperatures, the machines haven’t helped much. “When it’s 40 degrees out, there’s just not much we can do,” said Jerri Barkley, director of marketing.
The ski-season downer is caused by the so-called “Pineapple Express” — warm, tropical rains that come in a straight line from the Hawaiian Islands, said Chris Burke, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. The snow that fell in early December was quickly followed by El Niño rain as temperatures rose, causing melting in the Cascades and flooding.
“It was a decent start, it just didn’t go anywhere,” Burke said.
Washington snowfall now ranges from 9 to 67 percent of average for mid-December.
At Mount Baker, one of the few ski areas already open, snowfall is at 59 percent of average, Burke said.
“We should have about 90 to 100 inches by now, instead we’ve got 30. But we’re lucky compared to the others,” said Duncan Howat, general manager for the Mount Baker Ski Area and chair of the Washington zone of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, a trade group.
Howat figures Mount Baker is drawing at least some Seattle-area skiers who might have stuck closer to home if the other resorts were open.
The Snoqualmie Pass race team went up to Mount Baker for runs this week, Howat said, and instructor clinics for Stevens Pass ski staff also were held there.
But overall, attendance has fluctuated widely. “On some days it’s double what it was last year. On other days with bad weather, it’s crummy,” he said.
Even though the weather has given Mount Baker a boost over other ski areas, Howat said the widespread closures are bad for Washington’s ski industry.
“Skiers get grouchy, retailers suffer. When everyone’s in operation, we all do better,” Howat said.
Crystal Mountain opened Dec. 11 and is “hanging on by the skin of our teeth,” said Stacy Lyon, sales and marketing director. Last year, the resort opened Nov. 20, but it’s also seen openings even later than this year’s, Lyon said. While beginners might not mind the conditions, “experts are slowly starting to hate us,” she joked.
Skiers have put their hopes on a cold front supposedly heading this way over the weekend. Burke said temperatures should drop, but it’s not certain that the system will bring enough snow to sustain skiing.
In the meantime, ski-area operators are checking the lifts, dusting off the vending machines and crossing their fingers.
“Keep on snow-dancing,” the Summit’s Pretty advised.
“And ask Santa for a big, fat blizzard for Christmas.”
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or email@example.com