Two weeks after the scheduled opening date, Eaglecrest Ski Area will open at 9 a.m. on Saturday, according to General Manager Kirk Duncan.
Duncan said this is the "lowest snow year ever" for the local ski area, but all lifts, except Ptarmigan, will indeed be running.
"We're opening with the lowest depth of snow, on the base and top, ever," he said. "And we're able to do that basically because we've been aggressive about getting on (and managing) the snow."
The area currently has 23 inches at the base, and 62 inches at the top of the mountain.
Snowmaking machines running at full tilt have helped to fill in the base area, which includes the area around the day lodge, the Ptarmigan flats and the area surrounding the new Porcupine lift.
"Porcupine's been looking pretty good," he said.
This means good things for beginner skiers and snowboarders, but snow cannot be made above the lower portions of the mountain "because we lose the gravity-fed water pressure from Cropley Lake," Duncan said.
Hence, snow cover on the rest of the ski area is left in the hands of Mother Nature. And in an effort to make every inch count, Duncan said crews have been packing, compacting and driving cats up and down the main runs.
"We've been using compactor bars on the cats instead of the normal tillers," he said. "These cost about $50,000 each and the worst thing we can do is hit rocks. So, we don't put (the tillers) on until we get significant snow depth."
This means skiers and snowboarders, on Saturday, will not glide down typical corduroy runs.
"They'll see a certain amount of track marks from the cat because the compactor bars don't cover up the cat marks. It's safe enough, but it'll be interesting skiing."
On the eastern side of the mountain, the Williwaw and Ceechako runs will be open.
"Normally we would say 'OK, we're only comfortable opening the mountain with Williwaw and Mother Lode at a minimum,'" Duncan said. "But we haven't been able to get (the cats) on the pitches of Mother Lode just because of lack of snow."
Hence, that popular thoroughfare to the lower runs will remain closed.
Lack of precipitation so far this winter means officials remain concerned about the sparse snow cover on the western side of the mountain resulting in the decision, as of Thursday, to not run the Ptarmigan Chair on Saturday.
"The reason we're not operating Ptarmigan is that the west side is even sketchier than the east side," Duncan said. "If we operate Ptarmigan we're going to dump a whole lot of people on the top of the mountain who are going to be tempted to go right and go down the west side. If they want to, they can do it. But, they're going to have to hike from Black Bear (Chair) to get there."
On the cross country side, Duncan said Jeff Brown packed the entire lower loop with the cat on Monday without turning up any rocks. Reports from Duncan and members of the Juneau Nordic Ski Club say conditions remain firm and smooth. No classic tracks have yet been set, Duncan said.
Last year, the area opened the last week in November with 28 inches of snow at the base and 75 inches on top.
"But it was really much better distributed than it is now," Duncan said. "Last year we got one big dump of snow in November which really carried us through. But we haven't really had a big snowstorm yet."
From the parking lot, the mountain looks good. How quickly the trails get skied out, remains to be seen.
Beginning Saturday, the mountain will operate on its holiday schedule. Lifts will run daily until Jan. 1, with the only exception being Christmas day.
The full extent of Saturday operations will be decided Friday, Duncan said.
"I know it's frustrating for people," he said. "Sometimes, Mother Nature has no sense of humor."
Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at email@example.com.
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