Area ski resorts are off to a good start, which they hope translates into a banner season.
Hidden Valley Resort, Seven Springs Mountain Resort and Tussey Mountain Ski Area were able to make enough snow to open for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Hidden Valley, Seven Springs, Blue Knob All Seasons Resort and Tussey Mountain all opened full-time for the season this week.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Snow machines pump out snow on one of the slopes at Blue Knob All Seasons Resort. Blue Knob and other ski resorts opened this weekend for the season. Colder weather allowed some resorts to open as early as Thanksgiving weekend.
"Five years ago, we opened on Thanksgiving. This is only the third time in our existence," said Aaron Weyman, spokesman for Tussey Mountain in Boalsburg. "The past two years we did not open until January."
The early opening is beneficial.
"It helped give us a boost with season pass sales," Weyman said.
The winter forecast appears favorable, AccuWeather meteorologist Tom Kines said.
Mother Nature provided some initial cold weather so the resorts could make snow.
From late December into early January, some warmer weather is expected, which may bring more in the way of rain than snow, but then it will get colder again so the resorts can make snow, Kines said.
"From late January into February, it may revert more to what we are in now, a colder and snowier pattern," Kines said. "When all is said and done, it will be nothing spectacular, but snowfall will be close to or above
Resort operators said last season started slow but ended well.
"We closed with every slope open in the second week of April. That was the first time every slope was open at the end of the season. We had so much snow in March. It was amazing. It turned into a very nice season," said Blue Knob president and owner Richard Gauthier. "Last year, we had around 63,000 skier visits. The year before it was about 44,000. The year before was probably the worst year for the industry as a whole I have experienced, and I have been in the business since 1983. There was almost no snow. It was almost non-existent."
Weyman agreed, saying "two years ago was disastrous."
"Last year, we started late but got to ski up until April, which was awesome. We still had a lot of snow in March last year. Last year was good," Weyman said.
Seven Springs, located in Champion, also had a good season.
"Last year, we opened Nov. 30 for a couple of days then had to shut down. We opened for the season in mid-December and didn't shut down until the end of April. We average about 142 inches of snow here a year. Last year, we had about 140 of natural snow. The temperatures were cold enough we could make snow. It was not 'snowmageddon,' but it was nice," said Anna Weltz, spokeswoman for both Seven Springs and nearby Hidden Valley Resort, which Seven Springs acquired in October.
The acquisition was the biggest change among area resorts.
Seven Springs paid about $7.5 million to buy Hidden Valley in five separate parcel transactions.
Both resorts are about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Although it takes about 13 miles to travel between the resorts by car, the properties are less than five miles apart in the Laurel Mountains.
"It will be a great partnership for our region to help develop tourism. Both have their own personality and identity. Hidden Valley has the best beginner terrain on the east coast. Seven Springs is bolder in its terrain," Weltz said.
Since the acquisition, enhancement projects have been completed at Hidden Valley such as renovations of the rental center, the food service area and the ski lodge as well as the season pass office," Weltz said.
Some small infrastructure projects have been completed at Seven Springs, Weltz said.
Improvements also have been completed at Blue Knob and Tussey Mountain.
"We completely re-did the No. 1 chair. It has a new wire cable that is two miles long and weighs about 30,000 pounds. We installed a new cable system and re-engineered everything. It was about a $250,000 project," Gauthier said.
The ski lodge kitchen has been remodeled and Blue Knob is now serving fresh food on a daily basis, Gauthier said.
"We improved our snowmaking a lot. We added 11 new snow guns after adding three last year. They are a difference maker. We just need cold temperatures and can make snow," Weyman said.
Ski resorts such as Blue Knob continue to face challenges.
"We get lake effect snow up here. It can be a white out at the top of the mountain and down in Claysburg, there is nothing. We concentrate on snow making and grooming to make sure the slopes are in good shape, so people have a challenge," Gauthier said.
Operators are hopeful the season will be good.
"We are optimistic. We have to be. We have improved our snowmaking, and that will make a big difference. We hope to pop out a lot of snow," Weyman said.