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Easy to warm to chilly predictions

Email|Print| Text size + By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2007

Since the greatest measure of any ski season is the weather, most New England snowsports aficionados believe that if nature truly does love averages, then this could be one terrific winter in the mountains.

At least at the start.

Nothing could have been worse than last year's first months in the East, where midautumn temperatures prevailed through January, and seemed destined to put a cap on the worst ski season in memory.

But on Valentine's Day, skiers and borders felt the white love when a blizzard deposited more than 2 feet of snow, setting up a fine finish to the season, which featured several more late snowstorms.

The storm that sent cars spinning into snowdrifts on Interstate 93 in New Hampshire and shut down Amtrak's Ethan Allen Express in Vermont brought rejoicing and a huge pent-up energy from skiers and boarders who took to the slopes from Sugarloaf to Mount Snow.

As fall darkens into early winter, sparse snowfall is fairly common. Snow generally falls late, with the mountains receiving most of its winter supply from late February into April. That is the large reason snowmaking began and developed in the Northeast. Sunday River in Maine began to advertise "guaranteed snow" a couple of decades ago to emphasize the prowess of its snowmaking system and water supply, even in times of natural snow drought. But last winter, snowmaking did little good over the first half of the season because the temperatures were too mild to keep the guns going.

Could the pattern repeat itself? "We should see much cooler [than average] temperatures by the weekend and for the next 10-14 days," says Brook Tabor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Burlington, Vt. "It's the complete opposite condition from last season. There's a deep trough of Arctic air mass in Canada that should provide cool shots."

Cool enough air, he says, to be conducive to snowmaking.

So far this season, many of the larger areas are already well ahead of last year's pre-Thanksgiving buildup. Open on limited terrain are Sunday River, Sugarloaf, and Bretton Woods, with Killington opening this weekend.

In the Berkshires, Jiminy Peak has been making snow and plans an earlier than usual opening. Now the question is, will the snowmaking weather last?

"Last year when the warm weather settled in, even though there had been some cold weather in November, snowmakers had not had a chance to put down a sustainable base," says Herb Stevens, producer of television's "Skiing Weatherman," and a New England skier for 55 years. "This year, we could have a similar stretch of warmer than normal weather in the first part of the season. I don't think it will be as extreme, but it should last from mid-December through January.

"But - and it's a big but - prior to that, November will have its fair share of cold weather into early December. That will give operators in the Northeast a fighting chance to put some cover down on the slopes, which they can sustain through the holidays. They didn't have that fighting chance last year."

Sugarloaf's Bill Swain remembers well. "We'd make snow for a couple of nights and open some terrain, then the warm spells would come and we'd have to start over again," he says.

Even in its infancy, this season is already different. Sugarloaf snowmaking has covered enough for two runs to open, and over the weekend plans to open its bread-and-butter Tote Road and at least part of Sluice. Helping to stockpile snow and get terrain open this year is the addition of 70 energy-efficient ("low-E") snowguns for a total of 175 guns.

Now used by many New England areas, low-E guns are easily portable and can make greater volumes of snow at warmer temperatures than traditional guns.

"We can move water faster through a new pump house up on the mountain and make much more snow," says Swain. "Where [traditional] guns can cover an area, the low-E guns create piles of snow in the same time."

According to meteorologists, Northeast areas will need to stockpile snow as the Thanksgiving break approaches. "With respect to the coming ski season, we look to the snowcover in Northeastern Asia," says Stevens. "It's just a little less than normal right now, and if you're trying to make a three-week forecast and anticipate Arctic outbreaks, you've got to look at these source regions that will eventually give you that cold air.

"I think we're going to get some true Arctic air in the Northeast after Thanksgiving, so that's why I'm optimistic that these ski areas will be able to build a product on the hill that will get them through the warm period that I think is coming in December."

For snow lovers such as Tyler Coyne, a 22-year-old from Portland who has skied at every area in Maine, the experience of last season has changed his approach this year. A snowboarder armed with a student season pass, Coyne says he won't take anything for granted.

"Whenever there's snow up there, at Shawnee or Sunday River, I'm going to try and get there," he says. "Last year was unbelievable in the first half. I'd never seen it so bad. It was great in March, but this year I'm going to get on the snow whenever I can. Early, like next Friday. That'll be my first day."

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