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Ski season hits black diamond mode in the Southern Tier

The ski season may have gotten off to a bunny hill start, but it finally is in black diamond mode on the hills of the Southern Tier.

Snowmaking equipment is largely responsible for creating the bases at local ski areas, where the real stuff has been in short supply this season. Even the cold temperatures required for making snow weren’t consistent until this month.

“It was 90 to 95 percent man-made up until this week, when we finally got a good storm,” said Erich Dobson, marketing director at Swain Resort in Allegany County. “Last year was probably the opposite for us.”

“It’s a tale of two winters,” Dobson said, although both have been very successful in terms of the number of skier visits.

Swain, along with Holiday Valley and Peek’n Peak, opened their first trails in late November. But it had nothing to do with the monster lake-effect storms that dropped more than 7 feet of snow in some parts of the region.

In fact, only Kissing Bridge caught some of that snow. And that fell on ground that wasn’t frozen, then melted and was washed into Cazenovia Creek during the subsequent warm and rainy weather.

“Basically, we haven’t got the natural snow this year,” said Peter Calleri, marketing director at Kissing Bridge. “We never got the temperature needed to make snow.”

Instead of opening the day before Thanksgiving, as it did last season, Kissing Bridge didn’t open until New Year’s Eve.

“We’re playing catch-up,” Calleri said. “But then again, all the ski areas are.”

Peek’n Peak opened Black Friday this season, as it did the one before.

“Unfortunately this year, the month following that was a challenging 30 days up until the new year,” said Nick Scott Jr., owner of the resort in the Chautauqua County Town of Clymer. “We had a slow start to the season, even though it was early.”

“We have absolutely perfect conditions now,” Scott added.

Snowmaking operations stopped a couple of weeks ago at Peek’n Peak, where more than 60 million gallons of water were used to create man-made snow.

Technical issues hampered snowmaking efforts at Kissing Bridge, where the guns still are firing. But the ski area in Glenwood sustained a different sort of setback earlier this month, when the Thruway and Routes 219 and 400 were shut down in anticipation of another significant lake-effect snowstorm.

“We had several buses coming in from Canada that were turned away at the border because they couldn’t get on the 190,” Calleri said. “The roads shut down negatively impacted us; we lost groups.”

While some people think snowstorms are a boon for ski areas, the opposite is true during and immediately afterward.

“That Buffalo snowstorm completely missed us, which was a good,” said Scott, Peek’n Peak’s owner, referring to the November event. “It was a crippling snowstorm.”

Skier traffic during or the morning after a storm usually is pretty slow, agreed Swain’s spokesman. “There’s always a handful of diehards who are going to find their way here regardless,” Dobson said, noting that he was among just 30 or so people who were out taking advantage of the 8 inches of snow that fell earlier this week.

It’s been a bizarre winter thus far for ski weather.

Following a November with temperatures nearly three degrees below normal, December spiked to four degrees above normal before January went back into the icebox at four degrees below normal.

And, complicating matters has been a strange trend of warmer weather on weekends when ski slopes tend to be busiest. In some cases, temperatures have been well above normal on the weekends, despite otherwise cold conditions during the rest of the week.

Dating back to Thanksgiving, 16 of the 18 weekend days have been at or above the freezing point.

The upcoming weekend looks far more promising, though. After an expected snow storm that could drop up to six inches in ski country Thursday and Friday, partly sunny conditions are expected to return Saturday with temperatures in the teens. More snow is likely Sunday with a high of 20 degrees. Overnight lows are both expected to drop into the single digits, according to forecasts.

A perfect weekend to hit the slopes.

News Staff Reporter T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report. email: jhabuda@buffnews.com