An optimistic look at the ski season ahead

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: last ski season sucked. After a big snowfall in October, which dropped a foot of powder on Snowshoe Mountain, West Virginia (before the resort was open), Old Man Winter pulled a no-show. Virginia resorts were some of the hardest hit, reporting only 57 percent of their average annual snowfall. Worse yet, temps were so unseasonably warm, the mountains couldn’t get their snow guns going with any consistency.

“It was one of the worst winters we’ve ever seen,” says Kenny Hess, ski operation manager for Massanutten Resort outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Mass, which usually averages 35 inches of natural powder a year, didn’t even reach double digits last season. And they weren’t alone. Even looking to the Rockies didn’t offer any solace. Many Colorado and Utah resorts failed to reach the 200-inch snow mark.

“Everyone took their lumps last year,” says Rob Schwartz, general manager for Bryce Resort, Virginia’s smallest ski resort.

Skiers and boarders took their lumps too, dealing with spotty conditions and hopeful forecasts that rarely panned out. Some simply took 2011-2012 off. We cross-trained. We mountain biked through winter. But as the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. As fall transitions to winter, we’re itching to hit the slopes hard. Here’s what you need to know to make the most of this ski season.

How’s the Weather? 

Last winter was a bummer, but this winter should be a winner according to leading meteorologists. Long-range forecaster Paul Pastelok at Accuweather is calling for above-normal snowfall for the majority of our resorts and Mid-Atlantic cities, based mostly on the weak presence of an El Niño pattern. At press time, the Old Farmer’s Almanac agreed, also siting the weak El Niño.

Want some less scientific indicators of a good winter? How about a couple of long-standing folklore indicators of a harsh (read: great) winter. 1) For every fog in August, there will be a snowfall in winter. 2) If the corn husks are thick during harvest, the winter will be cold and snowy.

Cheapest Ski Digs: $20  

A hotel is nice, but camping is cheap. Canaan Resort has the best winter camping situation in our region. For $20, you get a pad, showers, and full power hookup at Canaan Valley State Park. And it’s all across the street from Canaan Resort’s 180 annual inches of snowfall and 850 feet of vertical drop, not to mention the cross-country trails that traverse the park. canaanresort.com 

Ski When You Want 

Appalachian Ski Mountain is introducing a Flex Ticket this year, which allows your ski day to start when you start skiing, instead of having to adhere to a strict 9am-4pm or 6-10pm ski schedule. Massanutten, Bryce, and Wintergreen in Virginia have a similar Flex Ticket program, but App is the only North Carolina resort to offer this sort of flexibility. appskimtn.com

Screw Mother Nature 

“Manmade snow is our product,” says Kim Jochl, marketing manager for Sugar Mountain. “And our product gets better every season, thanks to the evolution of snowmaking technology.”

Sugar invested a quarter of a million in eight new state of the art guns for the 2012 season, which will mean deeper snow, faster and longer. All resorts make improvements to their snowmaking capacity each season, but Wintergreen took it to a new level by adding a new water tank that will double their snowmaking capacity this season. “This will help us open earlier in the season and get 100% of our slopes open sooner,” says Betsy Dunkerton, marketing for Wintergreen.

There’s an App for That 

Wintergreen is introducing a mobile app this year featuring up-to-the-minute slope and conditions updates, special offers, trail map…wintergreenresort.com. Want something broader? On The Snow gives you surface conditions, weather, and general info for resorts all over the country. onthesnow.com

Cheapest Weekend Lift Ticket: $50

At Canaan Resort, for a weekend day ticket during peak season. canaanresort.com

Go Lumberjack 

Tree skiing has long been a rarity in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic, but our legal gladed terrain is growing this season. North Carolina’s Cataloochee Resort is officially adding Wildcat Glades, a short tree run beside Short and Sweet that skiers have “poached” in previous seasons when there was enough natural snowfall. This season, the resort has cleared the brush from the trees and added snowmaking. cataloochee.com 

Snowshoe Mountain is also set to unveil some new gladed tree runs this winter. The resort opened Sawmill Glades (the first official gladed terrain on the mountain) a few years ago and skiers have been anxious for more trees ever since. The resort couldn’t be reached by press time, so details about the new tree run are scarce.

Best Season Pass Perk: First Tracks, Wisp Resort 

Every Saturday from January to March, Wisp will open one of its chairs at 7:30am for season pass and multi-day ticket holders only. wispresort.com

By the Numbers

Yes, last season was rough, but there were some shining moments. Here are the highlights from the 2011-2012 ski season.

Longest Ski Season, 2011-12

110 days at Cataloochee, November 12 to March 18

Most Snowfall, 2011-12

110 inches, reported by Timberline Resort

Biggest Single Dump  

12 inches, Wisp, Jan. 3, 2012