Small ski resorts struggle to open in the early season with a lack of snow. What’s their future?

Last year saw massive snowfall – bringing lots of skiers out. But the couple years before that were a drought, and this one is shaping up to be similar.
Local Kelsey Bailly and her three kids, Axel, Hanne and Monet, came up for the day at White Pine to do a ‘snow dance.’ The idea is if you dance enough, the snow might come and the resort can then open. (Caitlin Tan/Wyoming Public Media)

by | Dec 27, 2023 | Recreation

This story comes through a content-sharing partnership with Wyoming Public Media.

Mom and pop ski resorts are often the heart of ski towns. They’re usually pretty affordable, safe and not very crowded – lending themselves to being family oriented where a lot of kids learn to ski. But what happens when winters become less predictable and there isn’t even enough snow to open around Thanksgiving – which has become widely thought of as the start of ski season? How can these resorts afford to stay in business?

Snow Dancing 

On a recent bluebird day at White Pine Ski Resort, a little two-chairlift ski hill outside of Pinedale, families sat outside eating burgers and fries.

Local Kelsey Bailly and her three kids, Axel, Hanne and Monet, came up for the day to, “get our passes for the season and hope that it opens soon,” Kelsey said while waiting for some food.

It’s the third weekend in December and the ski hill isn’t open yet. The sun beamed down with temperatures in the high 30s. The snow’s sparse – rocks and grass are poking through everywhere.

“We’re waiting to get up here and play. Are you guys itching to ski?” Kelsey said to her kids.

“No. Itching to snowboard,” they replied.

Since that’s not an option, the Baileys came up for the ‘snow dance’ party. The idea is if you dance enough, the snow just might start falling.

“Alright ready?” Kelsey said.

“You go first,” the kiddos said shyly.

But, they quickly got comfortable and started stomping their feet and twirling around, looking up at the blue sky.

“Let’s do it again,” they giggled.

White Pine Ski Resort is a wintertime staple for locals who like to ski and snowboard. The hope is there will be enough snow to open before Christmas. (Caitlin Tan/Wyoming Public Media)

The next closest ski hill to Pinedale is 75 miles away in Jackson. So White Pine is a winter staple for a lot of locals.

“We’re known as a place to start skiing,” said owner Alan Blackburn as he looked up at the empty hill. He was sporting a Carhartt jacket and tweed flat cap. “Kids and families are our forte.”

Typically, White Pine is open by December 1st, but this year Blackburn said they can’t open yet.

“The little road which runs up the hill – normally it’s covered. But you can just make it out here,” he pointed to the sparsely covered service road. “Skiing across it, you just go, ‘Humpty, bump, bump, bump, fall and trip.’ They could easily come out of their skis and break their leg.”

The economics.

On a normal winter Saturday, White Pine will see a few hundred people skiing. So not being open means none of those tickets are being bought.

“The only thing that keeps me sane is the fact that we had a good season last year with all the snow,” Blackburn said.

Last year saw massive snowfall – bringing lots of skiers out to the resort. But the couple years before that were a drought, and this one is shaping up to be similar.

White Pine owner Alan Blackburn stands behind the lift ticket desk, which isn’t open yet. (Caitlin Tan/Wyoming Public Media)

“I think the ski resort industry is going to suffer because of just variability,” said Sophia Shwartz.

Shwartz is a professional skier in Wyoming who works with the group Protect Our Winters. They talk a lot about climate change and its effects on outdoor recreation and the ski industry.

“Folks who are looking to plan a holiday vacation might be skeptical about choosing to come to these winter environments, because of the consistency and the lack of snow,” she said.

Shwartz added that smaller mom and pop resorts could feel it more than say big corporate resorts like Vail or Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

“I’m up here in Jackson and we have a rich, robust ski area and you know, a budget that allows them to hold on through rough times,” she said.

The man-made route.

But some smaller ski resorts have figured out a way to hang on too.

Snowy Range Ski Resort is about 30 miles outside of Laramie. They’re locally owned, with just a humble four chair lifts, and they did open December 1st.

“What we’re open on right now is pretty much all snow making snow,” said Riley Copeland, who runs their 11 snowmaking machines.

The machines create man-made snow – a mixture of water, cold temperatures and high pressure air. So if snow isn’t falling from the sky, it’s really not a problem.

Snowy Range has 27 runs and 13 are open, and without being able to make snow?

“We still wouldn’t be open right now,” Copeland said.

Man-made snow spews across Snowy Range ski resort. It’s allowed them to be open for skiing. (Caitlin Tan/Wyoming Public Media)

Now, all the major ski resorts are already using this type of equipment. But for smaller resorts affording it can be harder. It can cost a couple thousand dollars to make just a foot of snow for one acre – or about the size of a football field. For context, Snowy Range is about 250 football fields.

Copeland said the costs are worth it in the long run, as they have on average 2,000 people on a typical Saturday. So not being open would be detrimental.

“I mean, that’s just money lost without having customers here,” he said.

Back at White Pine on the other side of the state, owner Alan Blackburn said hopefully they’ll be open by Christmas.

“The groomers are ready. The lifts are ready. Everybody’s ready,” he chuckled. “Now we just need that extra bit of snow.”

Blackburn said he’s looking into investing in snowmaking equipment for next year – it’s the only way they can consistently open early and get lift tickets sold.

“It will help the employees enormously,” he said. “It’ll help my pocket as well, because at the moment, it’s got a big hole in it.”

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