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Downhill from here: Give the slopes a break when the weather gets bad

  • Ice chunks and ridges and cat tracks, Oh My! Sometimes, bad snow happens at good ski areas. When conditions aren’t what you reasonably expected, hurry to customer service and explain the problem. Chances are, you’ll  get a voucher good for another day of skiing. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

    Ice chunks and ridges and cat tracks, Oh My! Sometimes, bad snow happens at good ski areas. When conditions aren’t what you reasonably expected, hurry to customer service and explain the problem. Chances are, you’ll get a voucher good for another day of skiing. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • Death Cookies 2: On this early-season day, these skiers had found themselves midway down a trail that shouldn’t have been open and were plotting a strategy to finish the run. Sometimes, bad snow happens at good ski areas. When conditions aren’t what you reasonably expected, hurry to customer service and explain the problem. Chances are, you’ll get a voucher good for another day of skiing. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

    Death Cookies 2: On this early-season day, these skiers had found themselves midway down a trail that shouldn’t have been open and were plotting a strategy to finish the run. Sometimes, bad snow happens at good ski areas. When conditions aren’t what you reasonably expected, hurry to customer service and explain the problem. Chances are, you’ll get a voucher good for another day of skiing. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • Ice chunks and ridges and cat tracks, Oh My! Sometimes, bad snow happens at good ski areas. When conditions aren’t what you reasonably expected, hurry to customer service and explain the problem. Chances are, you’ll  get a voucher good for another day of skiing. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
  • Death Cookies 2: On this early-season day, these skiers had found themselves midway down a trail that shouldn’t have been open and were plotting a strategy to finish the run. Sometimes, bad snow happens at good ski areas. When conditions aren’t what you reasonably expected, hurry to customer service and explain the problem. Chances are, you’ll get a voucher good for another day of skiing. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

This is the northeast after all … you have to expect changeable weather. In the last week, for example, we’ve seen sub-zero nights, temps in the 50s, torrential rain, sleet, snow and gale-force winds. You name it, Mother Nature has thrown it at us. And we’re still standing. More importantly, the lifts are still turning at ski resorts, snowguns and groomers are buffing up surfaces and skiers are still smiling as they carve up the white stuff.

But variable weather has its price. Let’s face it, most of the time ski conditions are better than you imagine they could be. Modern snowmaking systems can create an artificial blizzard any time the temperature drops below freezing. Modern grooming machines can take almost anything frozen, from bulletproof crust to vapor-light powder, and slice, dice and puree it into a smooth, uniform surface that is a delight to ski on. The cost of snowmaking and grooming (and high-speed lifts) are the big reasons ski tickets cost so much these days, and why we are willing to pay the price.

Snow reporting, too, has gotten a lot more reliable, mainly because it’s had to. This is one area where the web and social media have had a major impact. Ski resorts simply can’t get away with even the mildest exaggeration: the first skiers on the mountain on any given day can tell a few thousand of their closest friends exactly what conditions are like. So ski areas, too, have learned to tell it like it is rather than as they wish it were.

But every once in a while, something goes wrong. The weather throws a nasty curve – it’s warm and wet at 3 a.m. and way below freezing by dawn, for example, and what was lovely corduroy when they groomed it the evening before becomes rock hard. Or man-made snow that was blown a little wet doesn’t dry out quite as fast as planned and breaks up into chunks as its groomed. Or two grooming machines break down at once. Or some key people on the grooming crew come down with the flu. Or all of the above.

It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it often takes skiers and riders, and even snow reports, by surprise (since they often have to extrapolate from reports given by the snowmaking and grooming crews and put out the first snow report of the day long before anyone has been able to get out and actually ski).

Earlier this season, I happened to hit one of these “bad snow days” at a resort that’s normally noted for the quality of its snowmaking and grooming. They were still trying to get the entire area open, and a cold snap a few days prior had allowed them to blow huge “whales” of snow on a number of unopened trails. Those trails were all to have been groomed overnight and everyone I talked to was excited about hitting freshly groomed snow on trails they hadn’t skied yet this season. The snow report that morning said “machine groomed packed powder,” but what was on the hill was not exactly that.

My first run, I dropped into a popular blue square trail and was disappointed to find ice chunks of all sizes and shapes, uneven surfaces with deep gouges between groomer passes, bullet-proof ice in spots with cat-tracks cut into it and unexpected rolls and dips. It just wasn’t fun to ski. Next, I tried a green circle, same problem. My third run was down a newly-opened black diamond that was in such bad shape, I didn’t think it should have been open. Big chunks of ice (we call them “death cookies”) everywhere, making it impossible to carve a consistent turn on the steeps.

So I headed back to the lodge, went to the customer service desk, explained the problem, and, no questions asked, they gave me a voucher for a return visit. Yes, it was disappointing and yes, I had wasted gas money to get there, but I’d rather use the ticket on good snow.

Since then, I’ve asked a number of ski resorts how they handle such days. Nobody really wanted to admit that they ever happen, but most pointed to some sort of “snow guarantee,” hidden in the fine print on their website. Most put a time limit on the guarantee, usually an hour after purchase. None of the places I talked to wanted an unhappy customer complaining all around the internet and all have a mechanism to avoid that.

Remember, the weather is always beyond anyone’s control, and both equipment and people can break down at inopportune times. If snow conditions aren’t good enough on one day, chances are they will be the next time you ski. There’s snow on the slopes. What are you waiting for?

What isn’t guaranteed

Two things that aren’t guaranteed are the weather and your own abilities. If it’s 15-below-zero, as it was the other morning, or foggy, as we’ve seen it several times this season, it’s just common sense to take that into account before you purchase your lift ticket. If you go ahead, knowing what it’s like, the ski resort has no responsibility if you can’t handle the conditions (though it may well exchange your ticket for a voucher if you ask nicely enough).

Several areas told me that the most complaints about snow conditions come on days when it’s snowed overnight and continues to snow throughout the day. Those complaints come from people who, frankly, need a lesson. If you’re faced with conditions you can’t handle, don’t go asking for a refund. Instead, take a lesson and learn how to enjoy – especially if it’s fresh snow. It’ll make you a better skier.

Make this a black valentine…

Black Mountain (800-475-4669, blackmt.com), in Jackson, has decided to postpone Valentine’s Day until Feb. 16, when it will be hosting its sixth annual Chairlift Speed Dating event. From 2-4 p.m., singles will be matched up to ride the “lift of love” double chairlift. If you hit it off on the ride up, you can ski or ride together. If not, you can head back to the lift for another opportunity at meeting your soul mate. Registration starts at 12:30 p.m. in the main base lodge. Participation is free, but you need a lift ticket ($49 all day for adults; half-day rates starting at 12:30 p.m. are $35 for adults).

(Tim Jones can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com.)

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