In the aftermath of last year's Tropical Storm Irene, there was some concern that Northeastern ski resorts wouldn't patch themselves together in time for the 2011-12 winter season. They did. But as it turned out, they needn't have rushed: Mother Nature turned off the spigot on precipitation, resulting in the worst ski season in a decade.
The good news for 2012-13 is that climatologists assure us the intense La Niña pattern (compounded by a strong Arctic Oscillation) that caused last year's snow drought and mild temperatures has been replaced by a weak to moderate El Niño, more favorable to skiers and boarders. The better news is that Northeastern ski resorts, chastened by last year's meteorological misfortune, are ready for the worst.
NO BUSINESS LIKE SNOW BUSINESS
The No. 1 priority during the off-season has been the acquisition of more -- and more efficient -- snowmaking equipment, the suddenly sexy snow guns and behemoth grooming machines that provide the lacy, white foundation of any enjoyable ski or snowboarding excursion. But since the technological proficiencies of HKD snow guns and Pistenbully 600W groomers can be appreciated by only a few, resorts are also providing more readily graspable images of their snowmaking efficiency. Mount Snow, for example, claims that it can fill an Olympic-size pool in 47 minutes; Stratton that it can cover a football field with three feet of the white stuff in an hour.
The biggest investor by far has been Stowe, which spent $4.7 million installing an impressive 325 tower guns, 150 high-efficiency tripod guns, 16 fan guns and seven miles of new snowmaking pipes. Other $1 million-plus investors include Burke, Smugglers' Notch, Sunday River and Sugarloaf, while Gore and Cannon Mountain have both invested more than $500,000. And it's not just how much snow you make, but where you make it. Receiving the lion's share of attention -- and publicity -- are the most vulnerable and well-trafficked areas, with Whiteface even extending its snowmaking equipment to cover all the runs at its new Lookout Mountain expansion.
GUARANTEED IN WRITING
Not surprisingly, resorts blessed with high average snowfalls -- places such as Jay Peak, Sunday River, Smugglers' Notch, Sugarbush and Bretton Woods -- are making the most of their "natural" advantage. Others, especially those heavily dependent upon patrons from coastal cities such as New York, are conspicuously promoting their snow guarantees, typically a "no questions asked" opportunity to exchange your lift ticket (no cash refunds allowed) for a voucher of equal value good for the rest of the season, or in some cases, for a full calendar year. Usually, these guarantees apply only to snow conditions -- not weather, lift service or personal issues -- and you have only a limited time to claim one. Nor are they generally available to those staying in resort-owned lodging.
At Killington and Mount Snow, for example, if you don't like the conditions, you can exchange your lift ticket by 10 a.m. for a return visit voucher good for one calendar year. At Loon, you have until 11 a.m., and can come back any time this season. At Whiteface, Stratton and Sunday River, you have an hour from the time of purchase; at Jiminy Peak, you have only 30 minutes.
DOWN WITH PRICES, UP WITH DEALS
Recognizing that last year's disappointing conditions jeopardized the continued loyalty of many clients, numerous resorts opted not to raise lift ticket prices at all this year, or to raise them only enough to recoup their own increased costs. And in a move that surprised even industry insiders, Vermont's Jay Peak actually cut its prices by 15 percent (helped, no doubt, by the popularity of Jay's new Pump House indoor water park).
Deals, however, can be found in record numbers, with most resort websites now leading you straight to them. As always, these come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes designed specifically to appeal to each resort's traditional client base. Among the universal "targets" this year, however, are three particularly price-sensitive groups: young adults, college students and families with small children, while among the more creative new appeals is Bretton Woods' interchangeable lift ticket that allows parents to take turns skiing and minding the children.
As of press time, preseason deals (typically the best of the season) are still available at most resorts for those willing to let bygones be bygones and ready to pull the trigger. For those who'd rather keep their powder dry until the other powder accumulates, there's sure to be no shortage of extended and follow-up deals as the season progresses. Just keep checking the websites of your favorite resorts and those of the statewide associations, skiandrideny.com, skivermont.com, skinh.com and skimaine.com. The one indisputable silver lining to last year's mediocre season, after all, is that this year's is definitely a buyer's market.
AND THEY'RE OFF!
In an effort to erase and replace those unpleasant images from last year, and to spur on those all-important advance holiday bookings, the Northeast's biggest resorts pulled out all the stops to make sure this year's season got off to a fast and good start. Snowmaking began as early as late October, and -- thanks to a little cooperation from Mother Nature -- some 20 resorts, led by Killington (Nov. 5), Sunday River (Nov. 6) and Okemo (Nov. 8) -- were able to meet their projected mid- to late-November opening dates, albeit generally with only limited runs. And to make sure that those first photos from the slopes were full of smiling faces -- and the tweets uniformly positive -- deeper than usual early-season lift-ticket discounts were also the norm. But not to worry if you've been slow out of the gate: Most early-season rates remain in effect through mid-December.
IF YOU GO
Lift ticket prices listed below are those that apply for single-day, nonholiday weekends. Midweek prices tend to be several dollars less; holiday prices, several dollars more. Online prices (advance purchase required) are typically 5 to 10 percent lower. Multiday discounts also apply, and at most resorts, kids 6 and younger ski / board free when accompanied by a paying adult.
Gore Mountain, North Creek. Lift tickets: $75 adults, $59 ages 13-19, $40 ages 7-12. Info: 518-251-2411, goremountain.com
Whiteface (aka Lake Placid), Wilmington. Lift tickets: $84 adults, $69 ages 13-19, $55 ages 7-12. Info: 518-946-2223, whiteface.com
Bretton Woods, Bretton Woods. Lift tickets: $79 adults, $64 ages 13-17, $49 ages 5-12. Info: 800-314-1752, brettonwoods.com
Cannon Mountain, Franconia. Lift tickets: $70 adults, $57 ages 13-18, $48 ages 6-12. Info: 603-823-8800, cannonmt.com
Loon, Lincoln. Lift tickets: $79 adults, $69 ages 13-18, $59 ages 6-12. Info: 603-745-8111, loonmtn.com
Sugarloaf, Carrabassett Valley. Lift tickets: $79 adults, $67 ages 13-18, $56 ages 7-12. Info: 207-237-2000, sugarloaf.com
Sunday River, Newry. Lift tickets: $85 adults, $69 ages 13-18, $56 ages 6-12. Info: 207-824-3000, sundayriver.com
Burke, East Burke. Lift tickets: $68 adults, $49 ages 6-17. Info: 888-287-5388, skiburke.com
Jay Peak, Jay. Lift tickets: $69 adults, $55 ages 6-18. Info: 802-988-2611, jaypeakresort.com
Killington, Killington. Lift tickets: $88 adults, $75 ages 7-18. Info: 802-422-6200, killington.com
Mount Snow, West Dover. Lift tickets: $83 adults, $65 ages 6-18. Info: 800-245-7669, mountsnow.com
Okemo, Ludlow. Lift tickets: $88 adults, $77 ages 13-18, $60 ages 7-12. Info: 800-786-5366, okemo.com
Smugglers' Notch, Smugglers' Notch. Lift tickets: $66 adults, $52 ages 6-18. Info: 800-419-4615, smuggs.com
Stowe, Stowe. Lift tickets: $92 adults, $72 ages 6-12. Info: 800-253-4754, stowe.com
Stratton, Stratton Mountain. Lift tickets: $87 adults, $75 ages 13-17, $65 ages 7-12. Info: 800-787-2886, stratton.com
Sugarbush, Warren. Lift tickets: $89 adults, $70 ages 7-18. Info: 800-537-8427, sugarbush.com
Jiminy Peak, Hancock. Lift tickets: $66 adults, $58 ages 13-19, $49 ages 6-12. Info: 413-738-5500, jiminypeak.com