Heavy snowfall early in the winter may play havoc with municipal plowing budgets and oil delivery schedules, but one sector of the economy that rejoices in being buried by snow as early as possible is the ski industry.
Maine’s 18 ski areas were busy in December, a promising start for an industry that annually pumps more than $300 million into the state’s economy.
How good has it been?
“I’ll give you an example,” Bill Whitcomb, owner and general manager of Hermon Mountain in Hermon, told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday. “It was the first time in three years we were able to make snow on frozen ground. That should tell you something right there, and everybody else is in the same boat.”
Hermon Mountain had one of its top five best Decembers in the mountain’s 29-year history, according to Whitcomb. He estimated skier visits during December were up 50 percent over last December. His staff made 500 season pass armbands, but sold out a week ago and have needed to make more, he said.
As of Thursday, the mountain was 100 percent open and had 14 inches of packed natural snow. Add to that the man-made snow and the average amount of snow on the trails is probably between 30 and 40 inches, Whitcomb said.
A good winter for the family-owned mountain means an ability to invest in snowmaking and other infrastructure improvements in the offseason, Whitcomb said, whereas a few poor seasons in a row could squeeze a mountain’s finances.
He said it’s too early to make grand predictions, though. He fears they’ll be paying for the terrific December with a January thaw. So the mountain’s snow guns are still blowing snow.
“We’re not trusting nature to give us our whole winter’s worth of snow,” he said.
Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley, one of Maine’s largest ski resorts, received more than three feet of snow in December. It’s not a record, but it certainly offered a good start to the season, according to Ethan Austin, the resort’s marketing director.
“It’s huge for us to have a good Christmas week,” Austin said. “If we hit those numbers, we’re where we want to be for the rest of the year. When we’re behind during Christmas, we’re playing catch-up for the rest of the season.”
Bigrock Mountain in Mars Hill had its best opening in five years, with its revenue at least 20 percent above where it was at this time last year, said Bill Getman, the community ski area’s general manager, “and we directly attribute that to Mother Nature.”
Caribou ended December with 44.8 inches of snow, making it the fourth snowiest December on record, according to the National Weather Service station in that town. There were 23 days in Aroostook County with measurable snowfall in December, setting a record for the month, and tying with January 1967 for the most days of measurable snowfall in one month, the station reported.
While the conditions are “outstanding,” the cold temperatures are welcome only to a certain point, said Getman. Because of the extreme cold, Bigrock was closed Wednesday through Friday this week.
Even the coast has received large amounts of snow.
Andrew Dailey, marketing and ski school director at the Camden Snow Bowl, knew it was a good December when the ski mountain’s rental department ran out of adult skis and most standard boot sizes at times during Christmas vacation.
“The natural snowfall allowed us to open up the entire mountain, including to the summit, during Christmas vacation week and that rarely happens,” Dailey told the BDN. “It’s been a big boost for us.”
One measurement Greg Sweetser, executive director of the Ski Maine Association, uses to gauge the quality of the early ski season is how many ski areas are open for Christmas vacation.
“There are many years when smaller community areas don’t get to open until after Christmas,” Sweetser told the BDN. “This is one of those years, though, where 100 percent of the ski areas, both alpine and nordic, were open for the vacation period and that is huge.”
Sweetser said Mother Nature has set the industry up for what could be one of its strongest seasons.
“The major ingredient for our business is snow. It overrides the economy in many cases because if we don’t have snow, we can’t ski,” he said. “The economy has been improving, the weather is in our favor. I’m optimistic that we’re going to have a very, very good year.”
It’s more than just about the numbers, though, said Sugarloaf’s Austin. Big snowfall is the best marketing tool the ski mountains have. When people are out shoveling snow from their driveways, it reminds them that it’s also time to dig out the snow pants and skis and hit the slopes, Austin said.
“It’s important for the psyche of the general skier to start out the winter in a way that feels like winter with cold weather and lots of snow,” he said. “It helps people really get into the winter mode.”
An earlier version of this story requires correction. Bigrock Mountain is located in Mars Hill, not in Presque Isle as previously stated. The error has been corrected.