The Biggest SnoCountry News Of 2015: Weather...Or Not
The biggest rolling news story of 2015 across North America’s SnoCountry is, of course, the weather, including the return of that strong and totally unruly little boy — El Nino. Love him or hate him, and that depends on where you ski and ride, you are feeling the impact of this recurring atmospheric condition.
Let’s begin in the Wild West where West Editor Andy Dennison pegs the top story in his region as the strange and unlikely combo of drought and El Nino.
“Most severe was the fourth year of a persistent drought at mountain resorts in the Sierra and Cascades that made its mark on the first half of the year.
"Warm temperatures and minimal precipitation forced a number of ski areas in the Pacific Northwest to open, then close … and several others never even opened,” says Dennison.
Farther south, the photos of bare ground at snow havens like Squaw Valley and Heavenly were disturbing. Smaller resorts had more difficulty keeping even a ribbon of manmade product on the slopes.
Fortunately, El Nino established itself late in the year and Western skiers and riders have been rejoicing in snowfalls measured (finally) in feet as the holidays arrived and the New Year turns.
Runner-up story of the year, says Dennison, centers around the big changes at venerable Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico.
The big overhaul of the fabled resort got underway in earnest in 2015. New owner Louis Bacon, a billionaire hedge fund manager and longtime TSV skier, wrote a check for $350 million to begin one of the largest remakes of a resort in recent memory.
First out of the shoot was the new Kachina Peak chairlift that opened up 150 acres of heretofore hike-only alpine terrain to everyone. Then, a new 90-room hotel, called The Blake in honor of the resort’s founding family, is rising out of the base village – scheduled to be completed next fall.
Facelifts are evident all over the valley, both on the hill with lots of glading, in the office with a whole new staff, and at both resort and non-resort properties.
To The Heartland
Moving to the heartland, where Midwest Editor Mike Terrell notes that “last season got off to a great start with early snow, but January and February, especially Martin Luther King Jr., holiday in January and Presidents Weekend in February, were so cold that it kept many customers off the slopes. Most Midwest areas ended last season with a slight business downturn.”
Then, Terrell, notes, winter has been absent for November and December as El Nino had the opposite effect from the West. It’s been a struggle to open for most resorts, and snowmaking weather has been hard to come by as December warmth has been record setting across much of the region.
On the brighter side, Terrell points to Crystal Mountain, Michigan’s $11 million expansion, as the runner-up to weather story. The expansion will add eight new runs, a triple chairlift, 25 hotel rooms to the Inn at the Mountain with a new rooftop terrace, and an enhanced Village Plaza. The new expansion is the single largest investment in the resort’s history.
Moving On East
Let’s keep moving. East Editor Martha Wilson concedes the weather story that kept ski slopes green and significantly unused well into the Christmas holidays was, and is, overwhelming.
But, enough gloom and doom as changes are slowing pushing El Nino around. Last spring, skiers were all high-fives as the snow just kept piling up, including bringing the most snow in the continental United States to Vermont’s Jay Peak for the season. But, El Nino reared its head and brought an unseasonably warm fall that did a number on trail counts through the holidays.
So, let’s get excited instead of moaning and groaning. Wilson says, “The story that had so many skiers' tongues wagging was the on-track, moving-forward resurrection of The Balsams Wilderness Ski Area and its historic New Hampshire Balsams Resort.
“Many locals and Eastern skiers are rooting for the project to provide a much-needed economic boost to the struggling N.H. North Country, which depended on the resort for tourism until it closed in 2011.”
Long-time Balsams devotees, says Wilson, eagerly anticipate the revival of the grand hotel and resort in Dixville Notch. Lead developer, Les Otten (he of the late American Skiing Company fame), envisions the largest ski resort in the East, taking advantage of the Balsams’ base camp at 2,350 feet above sea level, in a true alpine climate zone. At build-out it will offer 2,000 acres of alpine terrain accessed by 23 lifts, and 100 kilometers of Nordic trails.
All looks to be full steam ahead. The N.H. Legislature passed SB 30, allowing the N.H. Business Finance Authority to consider a $20 million loan guarantee for the project. That loan would get paid back to the state by the new real estate taxes that are generated from the real estate development. With several milestones passed this fall, including water withdrawal and wetland permits in place, developers hope to break ground once that earth is soft enough to dig into this spring.
Finally, on the ski racing front, Vail and Beaver Creek, Colo. flawlessly hosted another World Alpine Ski Championships in February garnering huge on-hill and television audiences here and abroad. Americans Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin (though recovering from a knee injury) and Ted Ligety remain in the limelight as the new World Cup season is underway in earnest.
We would be remiss not to end our recap of the biggest news stories of 2015 without noting the passing of arguably the most stylish, charming skier who ever graced the slopes from New England to Michigan to Utah. Stein Eriksen: Rest In Peace.
Photos: Top -- El Nino is bringing snow by the foot to the West (Soda Springs/Facebook); Taos Ski Valley is getting a massive overhaul in N.M. including the opening of Kachina Peak (TSV/Facebook); Right: Crystal Mountain. Mich., is undergoing a major expansion (Crystal Mt./Facebook); Historic Balsams Wilderness is on track to become the largest ski resort in the East (Balsams); Bottom left: Stein Eriksen; Below: World Alpine Ski Championships in Colorado (Roger Witney/ACA)