'When there's no snow, there's no dough'

There's not much snow at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, and not much hope that will change significantly in the near future. That's putting a financial hit on the ski park, which sees a big chunk of its revenues come in during the Christmas holidays.

The lack of snow — the mountain reported a total of 2 inches Thursday — and recent warmer-than-usual temperatures at higher elevations have put the area and its skiers and snowboarders on hold.

"We normally open somewhere between Dec. 1 and the start of Christmas break," said Rick Saul, Mt. Ashland's development director. "That's kind of the normal window. Obviously, we've missed that window."

The early weeks of the ski season, which coincide with schools' winter breaks, can account for about 20 percent of the park's annual revenue, he said.

"There are a lot of people in town that are visiting and traveling," Saul said. "Normally it's a very busy time of year for us."

On Thursday, the park's live web camera, pointed at the slopes normally covered in snow by now, shows here-and-there patches with a lot of bare ground.

That means the park's 130 or so employees are still in a holding pattern, awaiting the consistent blanketing of the hills that can put them to work.

"Our employees are just waiting to go to work," Saul said. "It's just kind of an unfortunate situation."

A forecast from the National Weather Service shows the trend of clear, sunny days with high temperatures on the mountains in the 40s isn't set to change through at least New Year's Day. Longer-range forecasts don't hold out much hope for a significant storm for the next couple of weeks.

"It is just a waiting game. We're in a holding pattern until Mother Nature delivers the goods," Saul said.

Mt. Ashland isn't alone in waiting for the tardy snowfall. Hoodoo Mountain, between Eugene and Bend, has not opened yet because of low snow levels, according to its website. The Mt. Shasta Ski Park used snow-making equipment to begin a limited opening Thursday, with some lifts remaining closed, its website shows.

The state's largest ski area, Mt. Bachelor Resort near Bend, is open with a limited snow pack of 2 to 3 feet and reports of spring-like skiing conditions.

"It's just kind of an anomaly if you will," Saul said of the weather.

From a historical standpoint, it isn't Mt. Ashland's latest opening. In 1977, the park's opening day was Feb. 17. Still, Saul said, this year's delayed opening will be the latest he's seen in his 14 seasons at the ski area.

It's not known what the next steps will be if the date continues to get pushed out.

"I think it's way too early to make any kind of determination on that level," he said. "We're just keeping our fingers crossed. We're trying to stay optimistic here."

The delayed snow is also having an impact on local ski and snowboard equipment sales. Bob Matthews, owner of the Rogue Ski Shop in Medford, said his staff is down to about half of what it would be if the economy were stronger and there was more snow in the mountains. He also said he's experienced similar situations in his 35 years in the industry. He said preparation for these types of events is key.

"I learned to be very fiscally conservative," Matthews said. "Because when there's no snow, there's no dough."

Matthews said he primarily uses seasonal employees who have other employment, which means they'll be able to hit the ground running when the demand gets high enough.

"That's the most important thing for snow sports businesses," he said.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.

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