EUGENE, Ore. — Gone are those wacky weather kids with the Spanish names, "El Nino" and "La Nina", who dominated the Pacific Northwest ski scene over the past four winters.
Now bearing down on us in their place is a winter that could be nicknamed "La Nada" — which is Spanish for nothing, as in nothing out of the ordinary.
Which should be good news for skiers. But maybe not.
As best as anyone can recall, an ordinary Oregon winter means skiing can sometimes be touch-and-go in the central Oregon Cascades, especially during November and December.
It’s not unheard of for a nice big blanket of snow to touch down early in the season, only to go away a few days later when the rains hit.
Nevertheless, ski area operators are optimistic about the coming season, which could begin any day now.
For the first winter in many years, the mid-Cascade ski areas have "nada" to promote in the way of fancy new facilities.
But this is just a lull before another storm of building activity at Hoodoo Ski Area and Willamette Pass Ski Area, both of which base their operations in Eugene.
Hoodoo plans to open a grand new day lodge during the 2001-2002 season — and to replace its main chairlift in time for the 2002-2003 season.
Willamette Pass plans to install Oregon’s "biggest and fastest" chairlift next summer. The high-speed, six-passenger lift will carry skiers from the lodge area to the summit of Eagle Peak in less than five minutes.
During summers, the chairs will be replaced by enclosed gondola-style cars that will carry tourists to the top of the mountain so they can enjoy the scenic vistas.
Willamette Pass officials are also seeking Oregon Department of Transportation permission to use the gondola cars on a short lift that would carry winter visitors over Highway 58. Currently, skiers parking in the south lot have to cross the busy and often icy highway on foot. The proposal is to use the gondola cars to move people between the lodge area and the south parking lot.
While no new ski facilities are going up, some prices are.
Willamette Pass will charge $31 for a daily adult ticket this year (up from $29 last season). And Hoodoo is raising its weekend rate to $29 (but holding the line at $26 for weekday skiing).
Mount Bachelor, meanwhile, has no immediate plans for new chairlifts — and probably doesn’t need them, given that Ski Magazine readers for the second straight year have voted Mount Bachelor lift services the best in North America. Mount Bachelor’s daily lift ticket will remain at $43.
There have been some facility changes at Mount Bachelor, although many snow riders won’t notice them.
The resort invested in a new electrical generator. It now has sufficient back-up power to run all the lifts and lodges should it be cut off from the main electrical grid — as happened on a holiday weekend last year.
While facilities and fees are significant, snow conditions are probably the most important factor in determining whether a winter is good for the Oregon ski industry. And not just the quantity of snow, but the quality and the timing of its arrival.
Last year, for example, the "La Nina" weather pattern dumped record amounts of snow on the Pacific Northwest — but skier visits to Oregon resorts were down about 4 percent while Washington ski resorts were up nearly 9 percent, according to Scott Kaden, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association (PNSAA), a Seattle-based trade group that represents ski areas in five states.
About 1,556,000 skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes in Oregon last winter, well off the record 1,619,900 skier visits recorded in 1988-89, according to PNSAA records. Washington ski areas, however, came within a few thousand skiers of matching that state’s record of 1,936,200, set in 1987-88.
The head count at Mount Bachelor was down 16 percent from the previous season, and business at Willamette Pass was off 14 percent.
"Much of that was weather-related," Kaden said. "Several areas were impacted by unfortunate weather patterns at unfortunate times."
Kaden thinks better times are ahead for the ski industry.
"We’re all very excited about the upcoming year," he said, adding that the likelihood of a good snowpack, combined with a strong economy and a re-energized ski industry all point to a "a great year."
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