Snow sports enthusiasts were not as enthralled with last year’s unseasonably warm temperatures as others in Western New York. They would take a mulligan on last winter, except that’s a golf term and courses closed much too late in 2015 and opened much too early in 2016.
“The 2015-2016 season was one that we would rather forget,” said Scott Brandi, the president of I Sky NY. “A warm December saw a few ski areas open in early to mid January, missing the Christmas vacation holiday. Those that did manage to open for Christmas had limited terrain. We had some great conditions in late January and February but the damage was done.”
“Last year was one of the most challenging we have ever had,” agreed Holiday Valley marketing director Jane Eshbaugh. “The weather was not good.”
How bad was it? Kissing Bridge was able to open for only 60 days, which is about a month less than usual.
“Mother Nature was not on our side," said KB’s Rachel Fanelli. Holiday Valley received only 117 inches of snow, well below its average of 170 to 180 inches, and was open only 98 days.
Resorts in the Northeast last year experienced a dramatic drop in skier visits − more than 30 percent − and this has reduced the amount of money they had to spend on upgrading facilities. Weather predictions for the region this winter aside − they have wavered from snowy and frigid to above-average temperatures − ski areas are forecasting more snow. That is because what money they did have to spend was used on snowguns.
Holiday Valley budgeted $1.2 million on improvements. “The bulk of our spending was on snowmaking,” Eshbaugh said. “We thought it was important.”
The resort purchased 38 HDK snowguns, to give it a total of more than 600. The new guns are automated and operated by computers. They can be set to make different kinds of snow − such as the heavy stuff needed for a good base − and to operate under different conditions present at different areas of the mountain. In addition, the resort automated 20 guns it installed last year on its beginner slopes.
Fanelli said Kissing Bridge increased its snowmaking capacity by 60 percent and repaired hydrants, especially in the North Area.
“We can open faster and make snow more efficiently,” she said. Efficiency is key because when temperatures are low enough for making snow resorts have to make as much as they can.
The Buffalo Ski Club also invested in snowmaking, increasing its capacity by 30 percent with new tower and fan guns.
“Last season was a tough one but we are looking forward to a great 2017 season with or without Mother Nature’s help − but we would welcome some help from Mother Nature too,” said Buffalo Ski Club general manager Mark Page.
“For many of our NYS ski areas the recent investments in snowmaking technology paid off and many ski areas doubled down in the offseason re snowmaking,” Brandi said. “A return to expected normal temps should bring us a ski season that see a return to 100-120 operating days and a good season for operators and skiers.”
Even with all the upgrades, Holiday Valley may still have to fight the same battle it has for years: getting people in Buffalo to drive down when the weather isn’t wintry.
“Our biggest challenge [last year] was convincing people we had good skiing,” Eshbaugh said. “Other than a few glades, we had everything open for the middle of the season.”
Changing of the board
One of the big changes seen at resorts is what people are putting on their feet. Snowboard sales have leveled off in the United States as many young people have switched to skis.
“The trend is going back to skiing,” Fanelli said. “People are still boarding but ski manufacturers are coming up with new equipment. … There are skis for every kind of style.
“You see adults and families going into terrain parks, so we are making different levels of parks. We are no longer making the big jumps where snowboarders would get big air. They take too much snow that we are going to use in other parts of the mountain.”
“I think freestyle skiing has been a very attractive option and on any given day you will see many skiers in the terrain parks. Just a few years ago this was not the case,” Brandi said. “I would venture the opinion that some snowboarders have gone back to skiing. My daughter was a boarder in her teens and is now exclusively a skier in her early 20s.”
Eshbaugh said the kids are using freestyle skis in the parks, ones with twin tips that allow them to go backwards. She said technology introduced by snowboards has been adopted by ski manufacturers, who are making skis that are narrower and shorter. The result is that carving turns has become much easier.
The aim of skiers and snowboarders has been to create an experience that is more like surfing and less like skateboarding. This has been one of the driving forces behind eliminating large jumps in terrain parks in favor of elements that promote carving and lateral movement.
Snowboard manufacturers are now shaping their boards more like surfboards that can glide over powder. Some riders are not even using bindings. They use stamp pads to hold their feet in place on the board, completing the surfing effect.
The wider powder skis are disappearing as manufacturers realized that floating on hip-deep powder was a dream and not a reality for most of us. Most resorts, especially in the East, primarily provide groomed or hard-packed snow, so powder skis are not much good to us.
Eshbaugh said men have had a hard time adjusting to the shorter skis, which are nevertheless more stable than ever. These new skis are in rental shops at the resorts and, as I can attest because I bought a pair in 2015, they are well worth a try.
Speaking of boards, the board of directors at Kissing Bridge installed new management. Richard Fanelli is now president and he wants you to “Rediscover Kissing Bridge.”
Aside from increasing snowmaking capacity, Kissing Bridge has moved to improve its customer service. It has added a drop-off deck with ski racks, so that kids and gear can be unloaded in a snow-free area before mom or dad parks the car. A premier parking lot has been added in which you can pay to reserve a designated parking spot. Entry into the central ticket office will be easier as sliding glass doors have replaced the hard-to-open swinging doors. Also, the facilities have been spruced up.
“We are making the customer feel welcome so they can have the best experience ever,” said Rachel Fanelli.
Holiday Valley also made it easier to get from your car to the slope. Last year it moved its access road so that parking is improved and closer to the building, and this year it built a new arrival area that ties in with the road. It has also added 40 parking spaces.
The resort also bought the former Burger King at the turn to the access road and has put its real estate and rental management offices there. This new office is not only easier for customers to find, it also has a drive-through window at which you can purchase lift tickets or pick up the key to your rental unit without getting out of your car.
What else is new
• Kissing Bridge has installed a new magic carpet at its beginner slope.
• Holiday Valley has changed it night hours. Night lift tickets will now go on sale at 3:30 p.m. rather than 4:30 p.m. Also, slopes will close at 9 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays but will remain open until 10 p.m. the rest of the week.
• Kissing Bridge is bringing back the Dawn Patrol, which it hasn’t had for years. Lifts will open 8 a.m. on weekends, and the Harvest Room will be serving omelets starting at 7.
• Buffalo Ski Club has bought a piston bully groomer to move all the new snow it will be making, and has added a jump site that will host local and national United States Ski and Snowboard Association competitions.
• Holiday Valley installed a flow trail for mountain bikers that winds for 2 miles across the slopes from the top of the mountain to the base.
• KB has reopened double funnel and added glade skiing between Holly and Twist. It will open others as conditions allow. It is also planning to add a new chair in the future that provide access to both Chute and World.