The Ski Season That Wasn't

A look back at last winter's impact on resorts, plus hope for the one to come

Last winter is not one we'll soon want to relive. For skiers and snowboarders, months of waiting were followed by weeks of bumpy riding that led into—at last!—much-anticipated cycling season (hard for weather to spoil that, at least). And for ski resorts, it was pure misery.

Snowfall during the 2011-12 ski season was the lightest in 20 years, and ranked among the worst ever for U.S. ski resorts. Many across the country were forced to open later than usual, affecting everyone from lift rats to innkeepers. The previous winter (2010-11) had seen a record 60.5 million ski resort visits, but dry slopes quashed the industry's momentum, dropping that number to 51 million and making it the leanest season since the early 1990s.

It wasn’t a complete catastrophe, though. Alaska, western Canada and the Pacific Northwest had a banner year, with 20 or more resorts getting above average snow. And in the rest of the country, snowmakers beefed up paltry natural snow with the manmade stuff whenever temperatures allowed. More important for the resorts, strong season pass sales (made well before the weather was apparent) kept their revenue from dropping precipitously. In fact, despite a 50 percent decline in snowfall and a nearly 13 percent decline in visits from the previous season, Vail Resorts—North America’s largest ski resort operator, with seven altogether—reported a decline of only 0.3 percent in lift ticket revenue.

With any luck, though, the coming winter will bring relief: Due to above-average surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, NOAA predicts a better than 50 percent chance of an El Niño pattern emerging by late summer and affecting snowfall this winter. A strong El Niño would bring warm air—and thus rain rather than snow—to the Northeast in particular, but a weak-to-moderate El Niño could hit the sweet spot: enough energy and moisture for storms, coupled with plentiful cold air cycled in from the Arctic.

Best to keep your eyes on the weather and your fingers crossed.

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