Not much time left for skiing as a lame winter winds down

  • Empty chair lifts are seen at a closed Gunstock Mountain Resort on Thursday, March 24, 2016. After closing for the midweek, Gunstock will re-open for a final weekend on March 26 and 27 before ending their winter season a week earlier than usual.(ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Empty chairlifts are seen at a closed Gunstock Mountain Resort on Thursday. After closing for the midweek, Gunstock will re-open for a final weekend on Saturday and Sunday before ending its winter season a week earlier than usual. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Thursday, March 24, 2016
The region’s ski areas have already started shutting down for the season as one of the lamest winters in recent memory ends.

Ragged and Crotched mountain have called it quits, and Gunstock only decided Thursday to open this weekend and will close after Sunday, as will Pats Peak and possibly Sunapee.

And although larger ski areas farther north say their snowmaking will keep them going through at least early April, there’s no question that near-record warmth and the shortage of natural snow has limited the enthusiasm of the winter-sports crowd. Just ask Tim Farmer, owner of S&W Sports, the only ski shop left in Concord.

“I started in this business as a teenager, and I’ve watched winters, they are definitely getting shorter. Mud season is already over,” said Farmer, who bought S&W in 1999 after working there for two decades. 

The National Weather Service station in Concord says the stretch from December to February was the warmest “meteorological winter” since records were first kept here in 1870. It was also below average in precipitation. It’s too early to say how it has affected ski areas in the Northeast, although when Vermont’s cooperatively owned Mad River Glen ski area threw in the towel two weeks ago, its marketing director said business was down about 40 percent compared to last winter.

It didn’t help that western ski areas had loads of snow, luring away high-roller skiers.

Farmer said S&W, which stands for summer and winter, had an okay season because of changes made in its winter business model, such as investing in services like specialty ski-boot fitting, which draws customers from farther away.

Ski leasing and renting have also become more important to S&W, as irregular winters make people less inclined to spend hundreds of dollars to buy equipment that may not get much use. 

“We only used to have a kids program to rent stuff for the season. Now we have adult leases. You can rent for the season, the weekend, a day,” Farmer said.

As far as how weak business is, Farmer pointed to winter clothing. 

“I think everybody had a pretty bad year with outerwear, because it wasn’t cold,” he said.

Normally, he said, clothing and other “soft goods,” distinct from “hard goods” such as equipment, make up about a quarter of winter sales, but this year they made up only about 10 percent. 

“We just placed orders for next year, and it’s pretty gloomy. I dropped five lines of clothing,” he said – most of them are brands that are now carried by non-ski clothing stores.

One other change in business isn’t related to the bad weather. Snowboarding, which in the past two decades was a savior of winter sports as it drew young people to mountains, is slumping badly everywhere, as many new types of skis greatly expand the snow experience without having to strap both feet to a single board.

“Snowboarding used to be near 50 percent of our winter business, and it’s now probably 20 percent,” Farmer said.

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