Old Man Winter may have taken the leisurely route to arrive in Southeast this year, but the latest bout of winter weather is - for many - arriving better late than never.
At Eaglecrest Ski Area, where recent storms have dumped nearly 24 inches of new snow, preseason preparations have kicked into high gear as the city-owned ski hill readies for opening day.
But recent snowfall was not enough to facilitate Saturday's scheduled opening date.
Obstacles, creeks and ditches still remain uncovered on terrain throughout the mountain. If weather cooperates, Eaglecrest plans to operate next weekend, Dec. 11 and 12.
"Mother Nature has been kind to us with the snow that we have received recently," said General Manager Kirk Duncan. "But, we still need another foot or so to be comfortable opening. We are making snow on the Porcupine area as well as the bottom of the Ptarmigan chair. The forecast is calling for snow on Saturday and hopefully we will receive enough to ... be ready for next weekend. We will decide late next week what lifts will be open as well as the operating hours."
About 60 total inches of snow topped the mountain and a bit more than 20 inches was measured near the day lodge as of Thursday.
"Our main concern is safety," he said. "If we open with marginal conditions ... that's not good for anybody. We've got to make sure we've got hazards taken care of and make sure that those hazards are marked."
Identifying and marking those hazards is the job of the ski patrol and Duncan said "it usually takes about three days for the patrol to get things buttoned up."
By Eaglecrest standards, the projected opening is right on target and within weeks of past seasons.
Last year, the area opened the last weekend in November. Eaglecrest opened the second week of December two and three years ago. And four years ago, during a record-breaking season of snowfall, the area opened on Nov. 19.
Cory Vanpelt, a hydrometeorological technician with the National Weather Service in Juneau, said the winter this year is will be driven by La Niña, a cyclic weather pattern characterized by cool temperatures and above average precipitation.
"(La Niña) usually results in a bit more snow here and a bit cooler temperatures," he said. "That's really what we're looking forward to, we won't see as much snow as in 2008-09, but (precipitation will) definitely be above normal."
New this year to the area is the opening of the Porcupine Chair, a beginner chair that replaced the aging Platter Pole. Duncan said he's perhaps most excited about this new lift not only because it will open up more terrain for beginners, but also because it will provide new riders with a more enjoyable experience. The Platter Pole was notoriously hard to navigate for those just picking up the sport.
"It's passed its insurance test and load test, and we're so confident about this new chair, we went ahead and ripped out the old Platter Pole," Duncan said. "It's a significant upgrade. We think people will spend three times longer on the beginner slope."
The Porcupine chair will be operated at half speed, transporting about 600 skiers per hour. That's 500 more riders per hour than the Platter Pole once did. At top speed, the Porcupine Chair could move around 1,200 riders per hour, same as the Black Bear Chair. Ptarmigan can move around 860.
Season pass sales came in strong this year, according to Duncan. And while they are still calculating new sales, he said it looks like revenue will be at about where it was last year at this time. Prices for an adult unlimited season pass, which is valid every day Eaglecrest operates, went up $50 to $699. Daily lift ticket prices dropped $1 to $42, not including tax. Nordic season passes are $99.
The area has 138 full-time employees this year. Upon hiring time, Duncan said they only had 10 openings, which is down from the typical average of 50.
Once open, the mountain will operate from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every weekend until Dec. 18, when the area will operate daily until Jan. 3. The mountain will be closed on Christmas. Starting Jan. 6, the area will operate at regular hours Thursday through Monday.
In the meantime, folks at Eaglecrest are asking locals to keep doing those snow dances. Duncan said the call on whether or not to open the mountain would likely be made around noon the day prior.
"The waiting this time of the year can drive people nuts, but it's just what you do," Duncan said. "There's nobody who wants to get (the area) open more than we do."
Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at email@example.com.
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