Snowfall in the mountains is at record low levels, and forecasts for the rest of the season don’t offer much hope. Some skiers and resort operators are trying to remain optimistic, while others are looking ahead to better times next year.
SNOQUALMIE PASS — For sure, Warren Miller, who for decades annually produced a ski movie eagerly anticipated by his fans, would have passed on filming here this winter.
Snow levels are near a record-level disaster: possibly the lowest since the state began keeping annual counts 66 years ago.
Consider these numbers:
Lowest October-January snowpacks
This season’s 74-inch snowpack through January at Snoqualmie Pass is the second-lowest amount since records have been kept, beginning in 1949.
Feb.-May: 147” Total: 191”
Feb.-May: ??? Total: ???
Feb.-May: 123” Total: 219”
Feb.-May: 192” Total: 293”
Feb.-May: 124” Total: 236”
Feb.-May: 103” Total: 216”
Feb.-May: 153” Total: 277”
Feb.-May: 178” Total: 313”
The record for lowest annual snowfall at Snoqualmie is 191 inches, in the 1976-77 season.
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Hyak, a resort at the pass, ended up filing for bankruptcy.
Its attorney said in a Feb. 5, 1977, Seattle Times story, “The Hyak ski area has been open one day this year, and it rained the entire day.”
So far this season, snow at the pass: 74 inches.
Snoqualmie would need a phenomenal 117 more inches of snow to stay out of the record book.
The snow news is grim in other Northwest mountain areas.
Hurricane Ridge is at 13 percent of normal snow. Its webcam this past weekend showed big rain drops.
Stevens Pass: 47 percent of normal. Paradise: 43 percent. Mount Baker: 27 percent. White Pass: 8 percent.
The snow, where is the snow?
Those are dirt pockets poking up on that ski slope. That’s vegetation that decided it must be spring, and that ski-resort employees now are cutting back.
Renowned mountaineer Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest, is just about to turn 86. He began skiing at Snoqualmie in 1942.
“I was born in Seattle, been here all my life. I can’t recall it being as bare as it is now. Rocks and brush, it’s terrible,” says Whittaker, who still skis. “I don’t know what the future holds, but it looks like we’re heading into more warming.”
Unless the National Weather Service forecasters have been fooled, there won’t be much snow the rest of winter to increase the dismal numbers.
It’s the ski industry that’ll be most directly affected, and those who planned events around skiing, such as the Special Olympics folks who canceled a skiing tournament Saturday at Snoqualmie.
The Forest Service says its fire-season worries aren’t about snow levels, but the spring and summer rains.
Seattle Public Utilities says all the rain we’ve been having will keep its reservoirs full.
How big a disaster is it for ski resorts?
On Friday at Stevens Pass, Julian Tracy, creative-services manager, could see 300 to 400 skiers on the slopes.
“Normally, we’d have 1,500 to 2,000,” he says. “It’s a combination of skiing in the rain, and this sort of prevailing negative attitude about the low snow.”
He tried to sound hopeful.
“It doesn’t look particularly promising, but stuff can change in the mountains. You can go from zero to hero really quickly,” says Tracy.
Rocky “slalom course”
For skiers, it is a dismal sight as they drive on I-90 to the slopes.
They drive by lonely snow-measuring sticks with nothing to measure. They see no snowflakes gently falling, just the road slosh churned up onto the windshield by that semi. They pull into an empty, muddy parking lot.
On a recent afternoon, Warner Scheyer, a Seattle software developer, was at Snoqualmie with his wife and son, the latter here with classmates taking ski lessons.
The dad points to a plastic stick on the slope, one of many, with an orange plastic flag. Could be a warning about thin snow cover or some other obstacle.
“It’s like a slalom course, where you try to avoid the rocks,” says Scheyer.
The 40 kids from University Cooperative School don’t seem particularly concerned. It’s a day off from studies; they get to play in the snow, even if it’s really wet and soaks through their clothing.
The Scheyers bought the cheapest season passes available for the Summit at Snoqualmie. Prices range from $89 for children under 6 to $389 for adults.
The resort offers a guarantee that if it doesn’t reach 100 days of operation during the season, it’ll offer a discount toward the following season’s pass. The discount is 1 percent per day it falls short. If, for example, the season is only 89 days, the discount is 11 percent.
The resort says that as of Friday, it was at about 40 days of operation for the season.
Says Guy Lawrence, marketing director for Snoqualmie, “What can you say? We’re obviously hoping for better things to come.”
He says that unlike bankrupt Hyak in 1977, which operated just that one site, Summit at Snoqualmie can get financially through the so-far horrible season because it is a part of Boyne Resorts, which operates a dozen ski areas in North America.
The large company can spread the risks, says Lawrence. It says Snoqualmie pass holders can use those passes at Boyne sister resorts.
Why not make your way to the company’s Loon Mountain Resort in New Hampshire?
That resort’s website gushes: “It has been a while since we have had conditions this good, and with the 4” or more that are on the way for the next couple days, I don’t see them not being awesome anytime in the foreseeable future.”
Lawrence says to think about ski resorts like farming: Some years there are crop problems.
“It’s really glorified farming,” he says. “We’re in it for the long haul. We’ve had many good seasons, and the occasional bad weather we can take on the chin.”
Snow in the Methow
And bad ski weather will stay, says Andy Haner at the Weather Service. Warm weather will linger for the next couple of months, he says.
You see, those storms that have been coming through here … guess what direction they’re coming from?
Southwest, says Haner.
And guess what is southwest of here?
As for the inevitable question about that hot-button topic, Haner says:
“An event in any one season is hard to attribute to any climate phenomena, global warming, or El Niño. After this winter is long gone, it’ll be better put in a historical context.”
The only good news for skiers — if they’re the kind who like cross-country skiing — is Methow Trails in Winthrop.
It’s the Eastern Washington nonprofit that maintains 120 miles of trails, the nation’s largest link of such paths.
They’ve got plenty of good snow, not much rain, and the weather is staying cold, says director James DeSalvo.
Come on over, he says. “We just got lucky.”
But for downhill skiers, it’s gotten to the point that some are posting photos of cars at the slopes with mountain bikes on top. At least they can do that.
Yes, it’s a non-ski season to be remembered.
“Our mantra right now is, ‘Pray for snow!’ ” says Kary York, vice president of the 400-member Sno Joke Ski Club.
“It’s the saddest year I think we’ve had. We’re basically skiing in crap.”