LACONIA — Like farmers, ski area operators are highly dependent on favorable weather conditions, and so far this year, they like what they are seeing.
Below-freezing temperatures and early-season snowfall have come as good news for many of the state’s ski areas, where workers are preparing for the traditional onslaught of visitors after Thanksgiving and around Christmas holiday season.
Greg Goddard, general manager of Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford, said wintry weather conditions this month bode well for a good year.
“Our early-season goal is to have at least two distinct routes of travel off each lift by the Christmas holiday,” he said. “Certainly this early cold weather will help us reach that goal this year.”
The freezing weather has also been good for snowmaking operations.
“We’ve been investing heavily in advanced snowmaking technology over many years, and we finally replaced all of our older equipment,” Goddard said.
He said the new equipment is more efficient and saves the resort thousands of dollars in energy costs while offering other technological improvements.
“We have been steadily increasing our fleet of automatic guns, which contain onboard weather stations that monitor the conditions around the gun and adjust them for maximum output automatically in real time,” he said. “They not only make higher-quality snow, they save in labor costs as well.”
Good, cold weather and a thick base of snow help a ski area’s bottom line, but sometimes it can be too cold.
Last season, many skiers decided to stay home after an Arctic freeze dropped temperatures into negative numbers around Christmas. Windy conditions made it seem even colder. Then, rain fell before the traditionally busy Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.
Gunstock ended last season with a $470,931 loss, compared to a $831,583 profit the previous year. Skier visits were down to to 150,320 compared to 165,575 in the prior year. In 2016, warm weather and rain were the problems, and the ski area recorded a $648,617 loss.
The ski season is important for the state's economy.
A Plymouth State University study, prepared in 2014 for Ski NH, found that 3.26 million people visited New Hampshire ski areas over a year's time, spending $359 million. A combined total of direct and secondary spending was about $1.1 billion.
The study also found that the industry supports 11,000 jobs and $61 million in state and local tax and fee receipts.
Cranmore early opening
Hopes for a good ski season are riding high in North Conway, where the earliest opening in the history of the Cranmore resort was planned for Saturday.
“Our continued investment and focus in snowmaking is a major reason why we are able to open early,” said Cranmore President and General Manager Ben Wilcox. “It’s a true benefit for our day and season pass holders.”
Resort officials hope to have 70 percent of their area’s terrain open for Christmas.
Many resorts invested heavily over the summer.
At Waterville Valley, which plans to open for the season on Nov. 23, there have been major renovations at the base lodge, including a wall of windows facing the slope, regrading to allow a better view of the mountain and a 3,000-square-foot expansion of seating areas, said spokeswoman Stacie Sullivan.
The High Country chairlift that took skiers to the 4,004-foot top of the mountain, but was prone to wind closures, has been replaced with a T-bar surface lift that will move twice as fast and be less susceptible to delays.
“The ski towers have been taken down and the skiing will have more of an open, bowl feel,” she said.
Also, expansion work has been completed in the ski area’s new Green Peaks area.
A major event will come to Waterville on March 23-26 in the form ot the U.S. Alpine Championships, the biggest race the resort has hosted since 1991.
Loon and Abenaki
The good weather conditions allowed Loon Mountain Resort in Lincoln to open on Friday.
There were two routes from the summit to the base of Loon Peak on opening day, as well as beginner terrain and two terrain parks.
In Wolfeboro, the Abenaki Ski Area plans to open the day after Christmas.
With trails cut first in 1936, and the rope tow and the lodge built in 1940, Abenaki bills itself as one of the 10 oldest ski areas in the country overall.