Paul Swanson tromped across the snow, punching through the crusted surface on his way to check a snow-gauge pole planted near the top of the Ptarmigan chair lift.
"Looks like 19 inches," said Swanson, mountain manager for Eaglecrest Ski Area. Pointing higher up the mountaintop marker, he looked into what he hoped would be the near future: "It'll probably be here when it's open. That's 52 inches."
Swanson, dozens of staff and volunteers, and hundreds if not thousands of local skiers are waiting for opening day at Eaglecrest. With only a few inches of snow at the area's base and brush sticking through thin cover on most runs, there's little hope the winter sports center will open before Christmas.
But when the big dump comes, or a series of smaller snowfalls settles in, the crews will be ready.
"If we get some heavy snow in here that has a base to it, we can open on a foot to 14 inches," Swanson said. "But if we get 14 inches of powder, it isn't solid and it moves around a lot."
Eaglecrest has been getting ready for the season for months.
Swanson is one of a half-dozen staffers who work year-round and part of their job is to hire and train the remaining 90 or so people who sell tickets, groom runs, teach skiers and snowboarders, operate lifts, rent gear and perform a dozen other tasks needed to keep the area operational.
"We try to do our hiring and training to be ready to go by Thanksgiving," Swanson said. "We want to be prepared."
Eaglecrest's earliest opening date was Nov. 12 in the 1994-95 season, said business manager Gary Mendivil. Its latest was Feb. 1 in the 2000-01 season.
While this is one of the area's later-opening years, people still are staying busy.
The rental and repair shop in the Eaglecrest day lodge is open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., to handle gear before the season begins.
"We have all our rental equipment tuned up and tested and ready to go and we've got 150 snowboards and skis that have been worked on," said shop manager Bill Hodge. "This is a perfect time to have work done. When it snows, it's going to be crazy in here. We're the only shop in town now."
Juneau Ski Patrol staff and volunteers have been prepping the slopes.
On Thursday, patrol members gathered up safety gear and weed-whackers, scraped a foot of crystalline, white snow off blue padding and black metal lift seats and rode to the top of Ptarmigan, where they hiked down runs, cutting back brush and young trees that have grown up over the summer.
The same day, Juneau Ski Club members were near the top of the mountain, checking wires that are part of the system used to time races.
Eaglecrest's ski and snowboard school also has been preparing for the season by hiring and training instructors and working on special events, said director Jeffra Clough.
"We're getting all the school groups scheduled," she said. "Our first school groups are scheduled on the sixth of January."
No runs have been added or undergone major changes for the season, but several other improvements have been made. The Eagle's Nest Warming Hut at the top of the mountain has been renovated, with new siding and a gas heater replacing the old wood-burning stove. Fish Creek Road was widened, straightened and leveled in places earlier this year in a state-funded project that will be completed next year. Less visible but important to operations is an almost-completed maintenance shop below the lodge that's been built over several years. Mendivil said the heated shop is being used to work on Eaglecrest's vehicles, including snow-making and grooming equipment.
The ski area has three snow-making machines that shoot vaporized water into the air to freeze and fall as snow. But they work only at lower temperatures - and at the lower elevations.
At the top of the mountain, enough snow has fallen to send the short spruce trees a good way toward their mid-winter coat of horizontal icicles. But as of late last week, that snow was drying out. It's nice for looking but bad for skiing, forming an unstable, avalanche-prone base for later layers of heavy, wet snow, Swanson said.
"The colder weather draws the moisture out. It looks just like feathers," he said. "This clear and cold isn't very good for us."
Skiers anxious to hit the slopes have been visiting the area, some to drop off gear for repairs and others just to take a look around. Few have hiked to the top to try out the accumulation, but Swanson expected more this weekend. Eaglecrest recognizes some skiers and boarders just can't wait, but staff worry about safety when patrollers are off-duty, first-aid stations are closed and dry snow conditions contribute to avalanche risk.
Eaglecrest staff hope enough snow falls soon so the area can be open for children and others with free time during the Christmas holiday break, a busy time that provides income for the area.
Even if it doesn't, they know the snow will come eventually. In the meantime, there's plenty to do to get ready for the season.
"We're just trying to take care of all the loose ends," Swanson said.
Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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