High and dry: Mt. A lacks snow

In an average year, the Mount Ashland ski area would be open by now.

Unfortunately, this is not an average year.

Today, Dec. 10, marks the average opening day for Mount Ashland during 45 years of operation. But as of Tuesday, there was just a thin skift of snow on the slopes, and afternoon sunshine had left the parking lot mostly bare.

Ski area managers aren't in panic mode yet. They know from experience how quickly things can change, but they need snow soon to entertain skiers and snowboarders who come to play in the snow during the Christmas holidays.

"If we can get open by the 20th again, like last year, that would be fabulous," said Rick Saul, Mount Ashland's marketing director.

The holiday season traditionally accounts for 20 to 25 percent of a ski area's income for the season, so a December opening is critical from a business sense.

"Every day counts during that holiday period," Saul said.

Optimism ran high at the beginning of November, when an early-season storm dumped 14 inches of snow on the mountain, and there was talk of opening the slopes by Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the weather pattern shifted abruptly. A stable air mass settled over the West Coast, and Pacific storms that would normally have come ashore in Oregon and Washington went north to Alaska.

Late openings have been relatively scarce since the ski area has been publicly owned. The last January opening happened in 1992, on Jan. 8.

While Mount Ashland watches and waits, ski area managers can take some consolation from the fact that everyone else in the Pacific Northwest is in the same boat. No ski areas are open in Washington, and in Oregon, the only skiing is on Mount Hood's Palmer glacier at Timberline. Only a few California ski areas have opened, and Mount Shasta had bare ground Tuesday.

Relatively warm temperatures have prevented ski areas that have snowmaking equipment from using it.

"From British Columbia to California, it's been a slower-than-desired start," said Scott Kaden, of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association.

Even cross-country skiers, who can glide along on just a few inches of snow, have been shut out. Crater Lake had just 1 inch of snow on the ground at park headquarters Tuesday. The average snow depth on Dec. 9 is 42 inches.

Things could change for the better as soon as the weekend. A cold arctic air mass is moving south and forecasters are expecting snow levels to drop as low as 2,000 feet by Saturday. How much snow the storm will bring to Southern Oregon is hard to estimate, said Rick Holtz, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Medford.

Regardless of the amount of snow it delivers, the storm could signal the return of more normal winter weather patterns, and skiers shouldn't get discouraged if it fails to deliver as much snow as they're hoping for, Holtz said.

"Other (storm) systems may follow to add to that," he said.

Conditions can change dramatically within days. Storms during the first week of January 2008 buried Mount Ashland in 75 inches of snow over seven days, and the resort had to close while employees cleared out chairlifts.

Mount Ashland needs 2 to 3 feet of snow to open, and about 48 hours to get ready to open. Slopes need to be groomed, obstacles marked, and boundary ropes strung. Food also must be ordered and delivered. Seasonal employees have been hired and trained, but ski area managers need to give them 48 hours' notice to report for work.

Saul said the earliest likely opening date at this point would be around Wednesday, Dec. 17, if enough snow appears. Schools' winter break begins Dec. 22. Last year's Dec. 20 opening is a date everyone would be happy to match at this point.

"We're still hoping for the 20th," he said. "After the 20th it'll start to get gloomy."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.

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