The Snow Gods Are Unfair

West Coast resorts saw ample snowfall and boosted visitor numbers this winter, while the East Coast suffered from the winter that never was

Feast or famine, when the snow gods favor Squaw Valley, California, it’s good. This photo is from the 2010, which was an above-average winter for California. This year, El Niño has disrupted four years of drought to bring snow levels back to average. PHOTO: Adam Clark

In terms of snow, this winter brought the best of times and the worst of times, depending on which coast you’re talking about.

On the West Coast, a much-welcomed El Niño delivered ample snowfall to help ski resorts in California and Nevada recover from the last four years of lackluster winters and drought conditions. Those storms also brought a boost to the economy, with skier visits and ticket sales up and money trickling down to local businesses like hotels and restaurants.

Snowfall data for California hit about average for this season—with resorts like Squaw Valley scoring the most in the Tahoe area with 463 inches, just above the resort’s annual average of 450 inches (last year, by comparison, Squaw got just 223 inches). Mammoth Mountain collected 342 inches of snow, just below their 400-inch average, while Heavenly got 341 inches for the season, hovering around their 360-inch average. Most snow science experts say that while this year’s average snowpack in the Sierra will certainly help California’s water shortage, it’s not enough to end the drought.

“Overall it has been a very successful season and average snowfall feels great after the last several years,” says Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. “The skiing and snowboarding has been phenomenal since December, so the passionate folks who have missed these conditions have been coming out all year and will continue to do so through May.”

Many resorts in the Sierra will experience some of their longest operating seasons on record. Mount Rose, in Nevada, which scored 380 inches this year, slightly above their average, opened November 2 and will run lifts until May 8. Mount Rose also broke their existing record for ticket sales.

“A lot of the people who may have been holding out during the leaner times came out to ski this season,” says Mike Pierce, Mount Rose’s marketing director. “Everyone who’s been around long enough knows that winters can be cyclical. You’re going to have a lean winter on occasion, but history can quickly be forgotten, which is what we’re hoping for after the last few years.”

Squaw, which opened on November 14 and plans to stay open through May 30, conditions permitting, will claim their longest season in the last 10 years. Skier visits at Squaw Alpine are also tracking to make the 15/16 season a 60-year record.

“There is no doubt that the last few years have been tough in terms of natural snowfall, even as we continued to invest in our state of the art snowmaking system,” says Liesl Kenney, public relations manager for Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. “This season, we had a storm every week from October through early February, and picked up several more feet in February and March. And it’s not over yet.”

Confirmed visitor numbers across California’s ski resorts aren’t in yet for this winter, but they’re estimated to be roughly at the average: 6.5 million, which would be an increase from last year’s dip down to 4.6 million visitors, according to the California Ski Industry Association.

That’s great news for resort economies that depend on snowfall and the subsequent visitors. The California ski industry accounts for $1.3 billion for local economies, a number that was hit hard during the last four warm, dry winters. According to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the non-profit organization Protect Our Winters, the ski resort industry across the U.S. lost an estimated $1.07 billion in revenue between low and high snowfall winters from 1999 to 2010, which meant 15 million fewer skier visits and a loss of 6 percent of jobs.

“In the snow sports industry, snow is currency,” says Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters. “If the snow doesn’t show, the resorts certainly suffer, but so does the community infrastructure that’s dependent on winter tourism: restaurants, hotels, retail, transportation, seasonal employees. We saw the impacts in California in recent years and this year, the East Coast took the worst of it.”

Okemo. Photo: Maxwell Santeusanio
Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont has seen better days. PHOTO: Maxwell Santeusanio

Ah, yes, the East Coast. Not such cheery news on the other side of the country. Vermont’s Jay Peak—typically the snowiest place in the East—got 185 inches, compared to their average 380. Whiteface, in New York, received 107 inches, roughly half of their usual amount.

The trade organization Ski Areas of New York estimates that this winter’s record low-snow conditions cost New York’s billion-dollar ski industry some $330 million in tourism revenue, a slash of 30 percent.

At Okemo Mountain Resort, in Vermont, which usually averages around 200 inches for the season, just 54 inches of snow fell at the summit during the operating season, prompting their seasonal snow reporter to call it “the winter that never was.” Thanks to an investment in snowmaking equipment, Okemo was able to turn 4 million gallons of water into snow and open top-to-bottom terrain, but the resort still closed earlier than planned, on April 3, due to limited terrain and a decrease in visitors.

“This winter had an impact on everyone who depends on the revenues generated by visiting skiers and riders,” says Bonnie MacPherson, Okemo’s director of public relations. “Okemo made adjustments as the season progressed—tightening our belts a bit with reduction of some costs and managing payroll according to business levels. I’m sure area businesses, and the entire state, also felt the pinch this season.”

But it’s not all sad, powder-starved faces on the East Coast. Okemo’s end-of-the-year video shows their mountain mascot, Calvin the Catamount, already doing high-spirited snow dances alongside kitchen staff, snowmakers, and rental shop employees to root for a more plentiful 2017.

“We try to remain positive and we wouldn’t be in this business if we weren’t eternal optimists,” adds MacPherson. “We’ve put this one in the history books and we’re already looking forward to a better season next winter.”