Weather leaves skiers high and dry

By KARL SCHWEIZER

Herald Writer

A lack of snow could leave hopeful skiers feeling like turkeys this Thanksgiving weekend.

But the overall ski season should be good.

The same high pressure system responsible for a week of cold, dry weather in Washington is likely to stop snow from falling in time for the traditional Thanksgiving opening of the ski season, say Pacific Northwest weather experts.

"I’m not hopeful for any downhill skiing on Thanksgiving. … People would be better off eating turkey than skiing probably," said Cliff Mass, a University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences.

Only 5 to 7 inches of snow have fallen at Mt. Baker Ski Resort. About 24 inches are needed before the ski lifts will start operating, said resort spokeswoman Gwyn Howat.

At Stevens Pass Ski Area, just 8 inches of snow are on the ground, with 36 inches needed.

The high-pressure system that’s stopping moisture-laden Pacific Ocean storms from reaching the mountains shows no sign of weakening, said Bob Arthur, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Seattle.

"I’d say the odds would be pretty low that you would have enough snow to ski on by Thanksgiving," he said.

Fortunately for skiers and ski resorts, the outlook for the rest of the ski season is reasonably good.

University of Washington climatologist Philip Mote said the seasonal forecast is for a wet, cool winter rather than a warm, dry one.

"If I were a gambling man, I’d lay 6-to-4 odds on snow conditions being a little above average this year," Mote said.

But he warned that the weather needed to produce snow won’t necessarily meet skiers’ timetables. An "average" winter could be achieved by a long period of extremely dry weather followed by extremely wet weather.

So there’s no guarantee that the current dry weather will disappear anytime soon, simply because the rest of the winter is expected to be wet, he said.

But ski resort and ski business owners say they aren’t worried. At least, not yet.

For one thing, ski buffs seem to be "chomping at the bit" for a chance to hit the slopes this year, said Ron Downing, co-owner of Mt. Pilchuck Ski and Sport. Sales of ski equipment at the store are up more than 40 percent from last year, he said.

For another, Thanksgiving comes fairly early this year, making it less likely that ski season would have been open in time for the holiday weekend anyway, Downing said. He doesn’t plan to get worried unless the slopes are still dry in December.

"If it goes much into December, then it starts taking a toll on us. December is a very important month for retailers, especially winter sports retailers," Downing said.

Ski interest is cropping up early at the resorts, too. More than 3,000 people a day are calling the ski conditions hotline at Mt. Baker Ski Resort, said Howat. Another 3,000 have been checking the resort’s Web site.

All that’s missing is the snow.

For those skiers who just can’t wait, it is possible for those with their own equipment to get an "early season fix" by hiking up the slopes, said Mike Palmer, manager of the Cascade Crags recreation outlet in Everett.

"There are still some rocks exposed, but you can do it if you’re careful," Palmer said.

Beau French and Tyson Daniels couldn’t wait. The two Everett youths, both 18, hiked more than 20 minutes up a hill at Stevens Pass to snowboard on the few inches of snow available. The return trip took less than a minute. Both decided that it wasn’t worth the effort.

"The snowboarding is terrible. By the time you hike up there, you’re too tired to get back down," French said.

But at least it was free, he said.

Micah Stansberry, 15, of Monroe, hiked 30 minutes to earn a short downhill trip on his snowboard. He had to pick his way through the rocks.

"The snow is good because it’s dry and you don’t get all wet, but there’s just not enough of it," he said.

Less adventurous snow enthusiasts can still go skiing, and snowboarding, by driving out of state, Downing said.

In Oregon, Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort is open now, thanks to a recent storm that dumped 2 feet of snow on the mountain.

But skiers who prefer to ski closer to home and don’t wish to pick through rocks will have to wait.

At Mt. Baker, Howat is hoping they won’t have to wait long.

"It’s time to start doing those snow dances," she said.

She might get her wish. The latest National Weather Service forecast calls for precipitation late on Thanksgiving Day, but with freezing levels too high for snow in the passes.

It remains anybody’s guess whether the freezing levels will drop to pass elevation, and whether enough snow would fall, to salvage the latter part of the Thanksgiving skiing weekend.

Most Washington ski areas offer recorded information on ski conditions.

The information number for Stevens Pass is 425-353-4400. Mt. Baker’s information number is 360-671-0211.

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