Where’s the snow? Colorado ski resorts dealing with early-season woes, but help could be on the way

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A skier rides a chairlift on November 30, 2021.

The conditions at Loveland Ski Area were plenty cold and windy earlier this week — but not all that snowy, considering it’s the second week of December. 

Michael San Miguel was visiting from Texas. It was his first time skiing in Colorado. He was thoroughly enjoying the experience, but said the snow wasn’t exactly as he expected. 

“I expected flufflier, like, three-feet thick,” he said, while standing on the lift line at Loveland. 

The winter months are crucial for the state’s mountain destinations. After almost two years of pandemic disruptions to the tourism economy, Colorado’s multibillion-dollar ski industry could really use a good year. 

But the snow cover on many of Colorado’s slopes is stubbornly thin as the holiday season nears, even after a storm last week dumped more than a foot of snow in some areas. 

Skiing early in the season is always hit-or-miss, the resorts and skiers often say, but this year has been particularly disappointing. 

“It is the most unseasonably warm preseason and early season I've ever experienced … and I've been in the industry for 20 plus years,” said Loryn Duke, a spokesperson for Steamboat Ski & Resort. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A snow gun at Arapahoe Basin on November 30, 2021.

Delayed openings, snowmaking and limited terrain

Steamboat delayed opening this year due to a lack of snow. Several others did as well, including Beaver Creek and Telluride. 

“It's really kudos to our snowmaking team that we were able to open on Nov. 27,” Duke said. “They have filled in for mother nature and literally acted as magicians in order to make snow.” 

The pandemic spurred a rush to the great outdoors across the U.S., and Colorado’s resorts and parks benefitted from the trend. But the strange weather in November and early December is making it more difficult for people drawn by the state’s open spaces to spread out.

The warm temperatures and sparse snow means ski resorts are operating with limited terrain, cramming a lot of skiers and snowboarders onto the same trails. That can make for a subpar experience. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Making snow at Keystone, November 30, 2021.

Candy Jones came to Colorado from Pennsylvania with her 16-year-old son to ski and snowboard during Thanksgiving week. They were going to try Keystone, but she said the crowds intimidated them, especially since she knew the slopes would be crowded since much of the mountain wasn’t open. 

“The lift ticket line was just outrageous,” Jones said. “It was just people pouring in and it just didn't seem like a good scene. We actually left and went to Loveland cause it's a much smaller resort.

John Plack is a spokesperson for Vail Resorts, which owns Keystone, as well as several other marquee Colorado properties. Plack says conditions across the state are getting better every week, and added guests can check social media or the resorts’ websites ahead of time for the most recent updates. 

“We're always trying to communicate as transparently as possible to guests about the conditions on the mountain,” Plack said. “Whether it's early season, mid-season, a powder day, we are always trying to make sure that guests know what to expect before they arrive.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Skiers head up on the Black Mountain Express chairlift at Arapahoe Basin on November 30, 2021.

More snow should be on the way

The dry start to the winter isn’t unheard of, according to Jim Kalina, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder.

“We'll see that every few years … we'll get kind of a pattern where it's very dry,” Kalina said. “I don't think it's too unusual, but it's definitely drier than the normal.” 

The big storm that came through last week helped some resorts catch up. For instance, a week ago, roughly a quarter of the terrain at Wolf Creek near Pagosa Springs was open.

But then, they got almost three feet of snow, said CEO Davey Pitcher. 

“That allowed us to go to 100 percent,” Pitcher said. 

The snow last week at Wolf Creek didn’t hit everywhere. Other resort operators hope their turn could soon be on the way with another storm rolling through over the next couple of days.

Plus, this year’s La Niña weather pattern could be good for the state’s northern ranges later in the season, according to meteorologist Kalina. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Skiers head up on the Black Mountain Express chairlift at Arapahoe Basin on November 30, 2021, as a snow guns works below them.

For many skiers and snowboarders, it's still worth it

For plenty of people, skiing or snowboarding in Colorado is always worth it — regardless of how much snow there is. Take Lone Tree resident Romell Ward. He grew up in Georgia. 

“If you're traveling from outside of the state, like you're from my home state, like you're from Atlanta, any snow is amazing,” Ward said. 

Ward has lived in Colorado for four years, and he’s an avid snowboarder. He broke his wrist a couple of weeks ago when a snowboarder ran into him while he was out learning to snowbike. But he’s still out there. 

He said the weather’s not going to keep him away, either. 

“I really love the outdoors and getting out and doing stuff. So I'll always be there. It's not quite as much fun as normal, but you know, I'm still going to go ahead and come out,” Ward said.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A lone skier at Arapahoe Basin on November 30, 2021.