Winter appears to be on its last legs in the Adirondacks, with most people trading their skis and snowboards for bicycles and walking shoes.
That means it's time to look back at the ski season to see how it stacked up for the region's ski centers and resorts in comparison to last winter.
Based on Enterprise interviews with ski area managers and marketing staff over the past week, the only conclusion to draw is that the winter of 2009-10 was a mixed bag from a business standpoint. Some ski areas are reporting an increase in skier visits and revenue, while others say they've had about the same or fewer numbers of visitors compared to last year.
A crowd gathers on the deck of the base lodge at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington to enjoy the March sunshine.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
In terms of snow, ski area managers said they wish Mother Nature could have been a little more generous, especially at the beginning of the season. But relatively consistent winter temperatures in December and most of January allowed the ski centers that could make their own snow to establish and keep a good base.
Those factors aside, the biggest storyline to emerge from this past ski season may have been the resurgence of some of the smaller, community-centered ski areas in the Adirondacks. After lying dormant for several years, Big Tupper Ski Area in Tupper Lake and Hickory Ski Center in Warrensburg reopened this winter, while Mount Pisgah Ski Center in Saranac Lake set a new record for revenue.
The ski season is still going at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington, which is run by the state Olympic Regional Development Authority. Manager Bruce McCulley said the mountain is scheduled to be open daily through April 11, conditions permitting.
So far this season, Whiteface has recorded 184,000 skier visits, which McCulley said is about on par with last year. Revenue is down about 3 percent to date, he said.
Considering some of the challenges this winter, McCulley was pleased with where things stand right now.
"We had a late start to the season and our season-pass numbers weren't as strong as we'd like, but we've made up little by little over the course of the season," he said. "March has been a strong month, and it looks like we'll have a real busy first weekend in April. All in all, we're hoping to do a little better than last season."
McCulley said the state of the economy may have played a role in preventing a better season at Whiteface.
"I think people were a little more cautious with their money," he said. "The ski business is a recreational activity that maybe some people would cut back on. We haven't seen a significant loss in numbers, but we're kind of holding steady."
Once they got past a warm November that delayed the start of the ski season by a week, McCulley said Whiteface crews were able to make snow on a consistent basis, except for a brief thaw in mid-January.
"We had good conditions, and actually scaled-back our snowmaking a bit early because things were in good shape," he said. "Shortly after that we got a couple big dumps of snow and had the Slides open for about 10 days in a row, which we haven't been able to do in a few years."
A large number of Canadian visitors throughout the season, along with discounted lift tickets on select Wednesdays and Sundays, helped to keep the number of skier visits to Whiteface similar to prior years, McCulley said.
At Gore Mountain Ski Resort in North Creek, which is also run by ORDA, manager Mike Pratt said he's expecting to end the season on Sunday with about 15,000 fewer skier visits than last winter.
"Between winter starting late, missing out on the Thanksgiving holiday and high winds that kept us closed on New Year's Sunday, there was a big hole that was dug early in the season," Pratt said.
Business picked up beginning with the second weekend in January and has remained steady since then, Pratt added.
Gore received less natural snow than last year, which Pratt said was "a little bit frustrating."
"But Mother Nature is the boss, so we rolled with the punches and worked real hard to put out a good product," he said. "It was just that some of the atmosphere was missing without the big natural snowfall."
Pratt said visitors to Gore this winter benefitted from a series of projects that have taken place at the mountain over the last few years, such as improvements to snowmaking and lifts, the new Northwoods Lodge, base lodge upgrades and work on the lodge at the North Creek Ski Bowl. A new lift connecting Gore to the ski bowl is expected to be ready by next winter, Pratt said.
Titus Mountain in Malone closed for the season on March 20, not so much due to a lack of snow as a drop-off in skier interest, according to marketing director Dean Savage.
"Our conditions were actually pretty good on the mountain," he said. "If we felt like we would have had more people, we probably would have stayed open a little longer."
Savage said the ski season began in December and ran for 89 days, which is about three weeks shorter than average. Still, conditions were good throughout the season, he said.
"Once we got started, Mother Nature was very generous to us," Savage said. "We had excellent conditions on all of our terrain for the majority of the season. The weather pattern was such that it was rarely too cold, too windy or too wet to not enjoy recreating outside."
Instead of big snowstorms, the natural snow came in "frequent small amounts," Savage said.
"We had all the snow we needed to have excellent conditions," he said.
Total skier visits to Titus were up this year compared to last year, although Savage declined to provide specific numbers.
"We feel particularly good about that because this season for us was actually about three weeks shorter than last year," he said.
One of the big success stories of the winter season was the reopening of Big Tupper Ski Area, which had been closed since 1999.
A group of 125 volunteers led by the nonprofit group Adirondack Residents Intent on Saving their Economy (ARISE) raised more than $70,000 and labored for weeks beginning late last summer to overhaul the ski center, clear its trails and get one of its chairlifts up and running.
Big Tupper opened in late December and operated Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays - without the aid of man-made snow - until March 20. Lift tickets cost $15.
ARISE Chairman Jim LaValley didn't have total skier visit numbers for the season, but said the mountain was averaging 300 skiers per day on Saturdays and Sundays in the last few weeks.
"I wouldn't label it as a profitable season, but we were able to meet expenses and set enough aside to get a leg up on next season," he said.
LaValley said volunteers went into the season with no expectations on how many skiers they'd draw or how long the season would last.
"But even without an expectation, the season ended up far better than we could have imagined," he said. "The outpouring of support from volunteers was far better than expected. The number of skiers was over the top better than I would have ever guessed."
While Big Tupper operated without snowmaking, LaValley said the mountain benefitted from great snow conditions.
"We've got one of the best pieces of snowmaking equipment Mother Nature could provide, and it's called Lake Ontario," he said. "Every week we would get a couple to four inches of snow to freshen up what we had."
Volunteers won't be able to sustain the ski center indefinitely, LaValley noted. He thinks ARISE can keep it running at least one or maybe two more winters while developers of the Adirondack Club and Resort project, who purchased the ski area several years ago, pursue a permit through the state Adirondack Park Agency.
Hickory Ski Center
Big Tupper wasn't the only ski area in the Adirondacks to be reborn this winter.
Hickory Ski Center in Warrensburg reopened under new ownership and with the help of scores of volunteers after not operating for four years. But things didn't go exactly as planned, according to general manager Shawn Dempsey, who described the ski season as "kind of rough."
Hickory got very little natural snow, had problems with its lifts and had to shut down the mountain's snowmaking system in January because it was labor intensive and "costing a fortune to produce very little snow," Dempsey said.
"We made it through the ski season," he said. "We didn't have nearly as many days as we hoped. But we had a lot of people that were very excited to return to Hickory after many years of it being closed."
Not being able to operate the mountain at full capacity was actually a blessing in disguise, Dempsey said.
"It really showed me and my crew what we need to address this summer," he said. "The place did not come with the owner's manual, so we learned a lot. We're doing what we need to do to have a snowmaking system up and ready by November. So, we're really looking forward to next season."
The ski season opened at Hickory on Dec. 19 and ended in mid-March.
The winter of 2009-10 was a banner year at Mount Pisgah Ski Center in Saranac Lake, which brought in a record $88,000 in total gross income, according to manager Matt Cook. In the previous five years, revenues at the village-run ski center averaged $57,000, including nearly $70,000 last year.
A total of 374 season passes were sold at Pisgah this winter, well above the usual average of 220. Nearly 1,100 skiing tickets and more than 4,700 tubing passes were sold, although Cook didn't have last year's figures in those categories to draw a comparison.
"I'm ecstatic at how the season went," Cook said. "We went back to the drawing board last spring, looked at it as a business and said 'How can we turn this business around, how can we obtain more customers and build a business that can financially succeed on its own.' We've started to make that happen."
The mountain still lost money for the village, but less than prior years. Cook said he is optimistic that Pisgah is turning the corner and will be able to record a profit in a couple more years.
While the mountain didn't benefit from a large amount of natural snowfall this winter, Cook said Pisgah's snowmaking system created a solid base and kept the trails in good condition. Snowmaking efforts were aided by consistently cold temperatures, except for a brief warm spell in mid-January.
Mount Pisgah opened about a week earlier and stayed open a week later than normal, Cook said.
The last day of the ski season - March 19 - may have been one of the most important. Members of the U.S. Alpine Ski Team, including several Olympians, visited the mountain to ski with local kids, sign autographs and pose for pictures.
Cook said the event generated a lot of publicity.
"I think that really put us on the map for a ski area that a lot of people didn't know about," he said. "Since that event, there have been companies calling and wanting to put Mount Pisgah on some of the Eastern ski resort lists. Besides the financial gain, I think it really opened up our exposure in the Northeast."
Cook said a series of projects and upgrades played a role in Pisgah's success this year, including a new control panel for the mountain's T-bar lift, repairs to the lift, new features in the terrain park and improved lighting.
"It got to the point where a lot of the community was sort of doubtful of what Pisgah had to offer," he said. "Making those upgrades assured the community that they'll have a mountain to go to that will be well-maintained and one that's here to stay."
Contact Chris Knight at (518) 891-2600 ext. 24 or email@example.com.