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Warm spell is tough on area’s ski resorts

Seven feet of melted snow later, here we are.

Mushy ice rinks. Dreams of a white Christmas turned Grinch green.

And Western New York’s ski slopes sliding off course during one of the busiest weeks in their season.

What gives?

Heading into Monday, the temperature had hit at least 40 degrees for half of December’s days, and it hit at least 50 degrees four times. So, despite last month’s polar blasts and lake-effect snowstorms, this month hasn’t offered a very wintry winter so far.

The mild streak has been especially tough for skiers.

Holiday Valley, Peek’n Peak and Swain were operating at a fraction of capacity, and Kissing Bridge in Glenwood won’t even open for the season until Wednesday.

“So far? OK. But, getting better,” said Jane Eshbaugh, marketing director at Holiday Valley Resort in Ellicottville. “We’re not as busy as if we were fully open.”

There’s good news for ski resorts heading into 2015: plunging mercury and chances of snow every day through the weekend, but “nothing major,” according to Steve Welch, a National Weather Service forecaster in Buffalo.

“What ski resorts will most benefit from will be cold temperatures though Friday,” Welch said. “They’ll be able to make snow for their needs.”

Temperatures across Western New York will peak in the mid-20s today before dropping into the teens overnight. There will be a slight chance of snow and west to northwest winds.

On New Year’s Eve, daytime highs will hover around 20 degrees before dipping back into the teens overnight in Springville, Ellicottville and Clymer, according to weather service forecasts.

Considering that the temperature hit 50 degrees or above in three days alone since last Tuesday, combined with warmish winds and some heavy rain, it’s a little surprising there’s much skiing to be had anywhere.

Holiday Valley was reporting that 22 of its 58 slopes were open on Monday. Peek’n Peak reported it had a “packed powder base” of 12 to 30 inches on 20 open trails out of 27 total, but reported that its cross-country, tubing and bag jump trails remained closed Monday. Half of the mountain at Swain was “doing really well,” officials there said, and the resort had 11 of its 30 trails open.

At Kissing Bridge, which is popular with metro Buffalo residents, there’s hope of opening a pair of trails – the first of the season – at 9 a.m. Wednesday. The ski operator has 39 slopes in all.

Snowmaking crews were “working around the clock” to get the slopes ready for a much later than usual opening day.

“It’s been a while since we’ve been this slow,” said Peter Calleri, marketing director at Kissing Bridge. “We’re about two weeks behind schedule now.”

Calleri said the that in the last two years, Kissing Bridge opened for the season on Dec. 3 and Dec. 4, respectively.

“Last year, we had the opposite,” Calleri said. “It was so cold a lot of people did not want to ski.”

The “vast majority” of its skiers visit Kissing Bridge on season passes, so Calleri said the operator hasn’t been hurt too much by the weather, although it did take a hit over the last week with the absence of regular ex-pats returning home for the holidays.

“You make a lot more money if you’re open during the Christmas break,” Calleri said. “That over-the-counter money will not be there.”

At Swain, upward of 50 Kissing Bridge season-pass holders are finding their way to the northeastern Allegany County mountain thanks to a reciprocity agreement between the two ski operators that allows them to use their season passes at Swain.

“We’ve had the tides reversed and were dead in the water from Mother Nature’s conditions,” said Erich Dobson, marketing manager at Swain. “You want to do what you can for them.”

Dobson said Swain concentrated its efforts on keeping a portion of its mountain going through the warm spell.

“We took every small window Mother Nature gave us to make snow and we piled it up,” Dobson said. “We were able to weather it pretty well.”

Holiday Valley, thanks to the November snowstorms, got an early jump on the ski season and opened Nov. 21 – a weekend earlier than usual – and then again on Black Friday.

“Then, things definitely changed,” Eshbaugh said. “We have a pretty powerful snowmaking system. We’ve been making snow at every opportunity.”

Peek’n Peak also had an early lift off after November’s arctic blast.

The Clymer resort opened on Black Friday and aims to open all 27 trails this weekend, according to Megan DeMarco, Peek’n Peak’s marketing director.

“We’re actually doing pretty well, all things considered,” DeMarco said.

“It’s one of those things where you just roll with the punches,” she said. “They’ve done a very good job at keeping what (snow) we’ve made so far.”

As local ski resorts sing “Auld Lang Syne” at their annual New Year’s celebrations, there will be plenty of slope hope for 2015.

“The ski season, so far,” said an optimistic Eshbaugh, “is still young.”