On his first day skiing at the Buffalo Ski Club since the new year, it was obvious to Dave Reling that skiers in the mountains out West were worse off.
He was just in Colorado, waiting in crowded lines to take lifts to Copper Mountain resort’s sparse and not-so-great snow. He traveled for most of the winter and found even the cross-country trails in South Dakota were green and brown.
Western New York’s hills may be shorter. The subzero temperatures may be colder. But this winter – this is the place.
And as Reling skied over the powdery bliss Wednesday morning, it was a Zen experience.
His trail arced down the slope like a garland. The sun sparkled on the snow. He thought about ice crystals refracting all those colors.
“I get into the meditative groove of it all,” said Reling, a retired Pioneer High School science teacher. “It’s really good. ... Gotta get back out there,” he said, finishing off an apple at a seat by the fire and stretching his black balaclava back over his head.
The Ski Club’s lodge and slopes in Colden were nearly empty – normal for a weekday morning and just about any day of the week when temperatures drop below zero. The two-month cold snap has kept snow fresh and ice-free but it has also scared off skiers.
Even though conditions are better than they have been in almost a decade, people have not taken full advantage, say managers at nearby resorts from Colden to Ellicottville.
“We’re suffering from the cold. People are reticent to come out,” said Peter Calleri, director of marketing at Kissing Bridge in Glenwood. “I think when it gets down into the negative numbers, it hurts. ... On the bright side, it’s supposed to warm up this weekend.”
The steady January and February snow has left a base so thick, some expect to keep lifts running through the first week in April – until Easter weekend – instead of the usual end of March.
That should help make up for the warm December that melted the seven feet from the November storm and the alarmist weather forecasts about wind chill that kept people indoors.
“The media has not been our friend here. ... I think people are just kind of gun shy, I guess. It takes education to let people know that, ‘Yes you can ski when it’s below 20 degrees,’ ” said Jane Eshbaugh, director of marketing for Holiday Valley resort in Ellicottville.
“Skiers are very hearty. They know how to dress. ... Cover your face. Take breaks,” she said. “For the second year in a row, every day I say, ‘It’s the best it’s ever been.’ Then the next day, it’s even better.”
While the most comfortable skiing temperatures are in the 20s and 30s – which are expected for this weekend – for this ice-cold winter, one resort manager joked that 15 degrees is the new 30.
“It’s the best snow we’ve had probably in nine years,” said Mark Page, general manager at the Buffalo Ski Club, a public resort with seasonal club membership passes. “I’ve never thought in February I would be hoping for it to warm. ... Let it warm up so people can warm up and ski and not complain it’s too cold.”
The fiercely cold weather can be extra motivation to get out. When it was minus 10 degrees the Sunday after Valentine’s Day, the parking lot had only a few cars by mid-afternoon.
Page’s staff was eager to go home, but one lesson was scheduled at the end of the day. Page called the man to see if he was still coming.
His wife said he was on his way. When he arrived with his two kids, they all wanted lessons. Skiing was their antidote for cabin fever.
“What else are we going to do today?” he asked Page before buying a membership. “I’m out of ideas.”
Janet Dillsworth, owner of Colden Ski & Board Shop, said she didn’t expect to recover after the warm December kept people off the slopes. The long snow season has been good for business.
“If there isn’t any snow, they go to the movies,” she said. “I was very nervous about losing Christmas, but we’ve recouped.”
Her shop, located midway between Kissing Bridge and Buffalo Ski Club, has leased out ski equipment to 700 people. Her supply of 120 helmets has dwindled to 16. She’s also been selling snowshoes, cross-country skis, face masks, hand warmers and toe warmers.
“Downhill isn’t for everybody,” she said. “They have to do something. We’re seeing more of that, I think.”
Dillsworth fielded requests for one item she doesn’t have or know how to get.
“I’ve had quite a few phone calls for heated socks,” she laughed.
After almost two decades working ski patrol on the slopes of Buffalo Ski Club, Callie Elsaesser has worried in recent years that winter rain and poor conditions would hurt small ski resorts like hers.
“I was really concerned a couple years back about New York State closing down,” she said.
This year has been a marvel.
“I’ve never seen so much snow,” she said. “There’s no holes. There’s no melting.”
Every trail from one end of the club to the other is open. To show it off she made a video for her sister who lives near a Utah resort, now suffering with little snow.
“She might actually come here,” Elsaesser said. “Cabin fever, no! There’s no cabin fever for us.”
Skiing through powdery, ungroomed, unpacked snow is her favorite. It feels like she’s floating on a cloud. She can hear the birds and check on the spot in the woods where she’d build a house if she could.
“You can’t wipe the smile off your face,” she said. “It’s like dancing. You find your sweet spot. You dance and you smile.”