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When There Ain't No Snow?


In the 1954 classic Christmas movie, White Christmas, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play veterans who rally to save their former Army commander from bankruptcy when a snowless Vermont winter threatens his ski lodge. The movie ends happily with all romantic entanglements resolved and the heavens delivering a thick coating of snow.

We can’t speak for romantic issues but winters have continued to warm steadily over the past 64 years, and tristate ski resorts can no longer rely on a fickle Mother Nature to cover their slopes with snow. Ever-more-sophisticated snow making equipment now ensures that skiers can find their preferred recreation no matter what.

After a spring-like weekend, Ulla Jacobs, marketing director for Ski Sundown in New Hartford, said that 12 of the resort’s 16 trails were open Monday with the promise that the remaining four will be open and groomed in the coming days. “I understand we are going to get some real snow this week, which would be fantastic,” she said. “But it is supposed to get colder, so, no matter what, we will have the trails open.”

The timing couldn’t be better as the resort is gearing up for its 50th anniversary on January 25th. From 11:30- 2:30PM that day the ski center will provide entertainment in the form of a retro ski outfit contest, clowns, quaffing Sundown 5.0 beer (created by Brewery Legitimus), Music by The River, and a possible visit from NBC CT’s Snow Monster (weather permitting).

“We encourage everyone to come in their onesie ski outfits—big hair and hair bands to go with them,” said Jacobs.

The event is free with admission ticket or pass.

“There will be skiing all day,” Jacobs promised.

She noted that Ski Sundown is being proactive about the changing winter patterns. “Climate change is real,” she said, explaining that Ski Sundown is negotiating with the Metropolitan District Commission, which provides water to the Great Hartford area, to draw water from nearby Lake McDonough.

“I believe it will be in place next year,” she said, “which will give us much more water for making snow.

Sundown is not the only tristate ski resort that has to deal with the changing climate. Butternut Basin in Great Barrington MA, currently features 22 trails (16 open last week), 10 ski lifts, two terrain parks and a tubing area, is also making snow every time the temperature drops below 20 degrees. “We had a couple of cold nights last week,” Marketing Director Dillon Mahon said, “and we made a ton of snow. When it comes to making snow, all we need is water, cold weather and a snow-making crew. There has been a lot of progress in the technology behind snow guns.”

Mahon admitted, “We have to roll with what we have,” but added, “I think we are doing a good job. We have several hundred cars in the lot today and there are a lot of people out there on the slopes. We’re embracing the learning aspect of it, the fun aspect and the family aspect.”

He believes that decades of unpredictable New England weather have acclimatized skiers to going to resorts with the assurance that they will be able to ski no matter what. “We’re always marketing, always trying to get them here and I think they have gotten used to the idea that there will be snow on the hills,” he said. “But I have to admit that when they see snow in their front yards on Wednesday, we feel the effect on Saturday.”

Particularly popular at ski resorts today are the Terrain Parks, where youngsters and adults can perform tricks similar to skateparks. Mahon said it takes a lot of snow to create the parks. “We pay a lot of attention to building good features and to the quality of the snow. We don’t have night skiing, which is to the snow’s benefit because we can groom it earlier before it freezes at night. It’s a strong point for us.”

Across the state line in Hillsdale NY, Catamount Ski Resort has 40 trails, about half of which were open last weekend. Director of Sales Rich Edwards said snow-making crews are busy making snow and grooming the trails to provide skiers with a pleasurable experience. “We plan to have all 40 open in the coming months,” he said.

“We prefer to have temperatures below 20 degrees to make snow,” he said. “We haven’t had many opportunities but, when we have, we have produced enough to keep the trails maintained and open.”

He said that covering hills with manmade snow has been “an industry norm for quite a few decades now” and is an ecologically sound answer to the lack of natural snow cover. “We have retention ponds that are filled by rain, runoff, springs and mountain streams. “They fill up in the summer and in winter we use them to make snow. When the snow melts, it flows back down into the ponds. It a nice cycle and the equipment now is much more sophisticated.”

Land intensive businesses such as ski resorts cannot afford to lay fallow during the off-season, and Edwards said that Catamount is busy all year long with outdoor adventures. “We have an aerial adventure park with 12 tree-top challenges and a zip tour with 1,000-foot-long and 5,500-foot-long lines—the longest in America. There is a drop of 1,000 feet and its takes two-and-a-half minutes for the ride.”

Butternut augments its winter schedule with summer concerts and festivals on the site, while Ski Sundown serves as a venue for events year-round.