First snow has skiers looking up

Above-average snowfall could mean early season at Eaglecrest Ski Area

Posted: Thursday, November 09, 2006

The first substantial snowstorm of the season left 19 inches in the mountains and lots of people in town asking the same question.

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"So, when will Eaglecrest open this year?"

"Tomorrow," said Scott Fischer, joking Wednesday at Foggy Mountain Shop, his outdoor sports equipment store. Fischer is a 28-year resident of Juneau who has worked at the public ski area.

"I've just watched the weather patterns for years. It is totally unpredictable, but this is a good start," he said.

Patrick Vanpool, an avid snowboarder who owns the skate and snowboard shop Sequence, also thought the snowfall looked promising.

"I think it will probably open in the next couple of weeks, if the snow keeps going like this," he said.

Kirk Duncan, the ski area manager, was more skeptical.

"It is somewhat early for this type of snow to come, but it could melt in a week," he said. Duncan doesn't know when the slopes will finally open, but a target date has been set for Dec. 8.

The possibility of Eaglecrest opening tomorrow - or even this weekend - looks highly unlikely, at least according to Wednesday's forecast. Whether skiers will have to wait until last year's date - Jan. 26 - is still uncertain.

"We've got a fairly significant system moving in from the Gulf of Alaska," said National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Fritsch. "More than anything it is going to produce wind, but some snow too."

As of Wednesday, Fritsch reported 9 inches of snow at the lodge and 19 inches at the top of the mountain. Roughly 3 feet of snow is needed at the base to open the ski area, said Duncan. Slightly more than the average amount of snow has fallen for the month, but it is too early to tell whether Eaglecrest will have enough by Dec. 8.

"If things continue the way they are right now, we should be at or above average by the end of the year," Fritsch said.

The current snow is light and fluffy, however, and is not "snowball snow" - the kind that packs well for a solid base at a ski resort. Fritsch predicted low 30s daytime highs for the rest of the week, with nights dropping into the low 20s.

"Maybe we will get some better snowball temperatures out of this," he said. Another twist, however, is that this year, the Climate Prediction Center in Anchorage forecasts a mild El Nino.

"For us that translates into air temperatures slightly warmer than usual and precipitation slightly higher than usual. Does that mean more snow or more rain? Well, it could be both," he said.

Juneau's wet maritime climate coupled with slopes covered in muskeg makes Eaglecrest's ability to retain snow a challenge, Duncan said.

A new mid-mountain chairlift will help access the upper mountain next year by opening up the East Bowl - a popular spot because it gets snowfall in the early season. A second lift replaces the Platter Pull. This season, however, the lifts will sit in storage because they arrived in August, too late for installation.

The mid-mountain lift was purchased for $900,000 and also will help address warmer weather associated with future climate change.

"That is the point of the mid-mountain lift," Duncan said. "It is difficult to react to drastically changing weather conditions."

Schizophrenic snow conditions also dictate whether Eaglecrest can stay open.

"I bet half the years they've been open they've had to close because of a change of weather for some period of time," Fischer said. "You have a cold spell just like this and then it almost always warms up."

In the meantime, staffers at Eaglecrest were preparing for the season. A hiring fair is scheduled for Saturday, with employee crew orientations taking place the following week.

But until enough snow falls, Duncan said "basically everybody is just holding their breath trying to figure out what is going on."

Lack of snow and lifts doesn't stop the eager. Fischer expected more than 100 backcountry skiers and snowboarders around the area this weekend.

"I bet there are probably 20 people up there skiing, hiking up and skiing right now," he said Wednesday.

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com.





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