Despite late start, ski hills work to save season



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While mild temperatures in November and early December meant that ski hills across the Gogebic Range pushed back their opening days, the recent snowfalls and cold weather means that all have at least some runs open and have been seeing skiers anxious to hit the slopes.

“The crowds were good over the holidays,” said Bruce Noren, the general manager of Big Powderhorn Mountain Resort, “you know, (just) not as good as we’re used to.”

While the delayed snow meant the numbers were down from previous years, Noren noted the resort was doing better than expected.

“We were down ... but not as bad as we thought it might be,” Noren said. “We expected it to be much worse, it was significantly down but we expected it to be much worse than it was.”

Noren said the one of the big ski times for the resort is the period between Christmas and New Years and while the hill looked busier than past years, that was somewhat misleading since the closed runs contained the crowds in specific areas.

Those that were skiing were generally enjoying themselves, according to Noren.

“The other thing we found is that our guests were very understanding. Obviously they would have liked to see more terrain open but I think it’s because this snow drought is so widespread, they saw it all the way up here no matter where they drove from, that there was little to no snow. So they were pleased with the effort we made,” he said.

Coupled with the loss of revenue from the late start is the higher cost of making snow, but Noren is glad that skiers can use at least some of the resort’s runs.

“We’re much more fortunate than some resorts out east, we at least have the temperatures to make snow,” he said.

Powderhorn employees have been working around the clock, in 12-hour shifts, making snow to get all of the resort’s runs open, with the plan to open another two lifts and an additional five to seven runs by next weekend.

“We’ll continue to make snow until we’ve accomplished (opening the whole resort) or we have natural snow to do it for us,” Noren said, adding that he hoped to have all the runs open as soon as possible.

The Snow Country Ski Club, formerly the Ironwood ski team, will also be using Powderhorn’s slopes this year.

“We’re really excited to have them. Anytime you can get young people that are enthusiastic about skiing on your ski hill you’ve got to be happy about that,” Noren said, referring to the opportunity to host both training sessions and competitive meets.

Whereas Powderhorn attracts a large number of locals, Indianhead Mountain Resort and Blackjack Ski Resort primarily cater to tourists.

“We are truly a destination resort,” said Barry Bolich, the general manager and executive vice president of Big Snow Resorts, the company that owns Indianhead and Blackjack.

Bolich estimated roughly 80 percent of his business is from those traveling from outside the area. He said the Fox Valley — from Green Bay to Fond du Lac — is the number one market, with the Milwaukee area coming in at number two. The resort also sees tourists from the Twin Cities and Chicago areas.

Bolich also saw a slow start to the season, although he said the second half of the holidays had an increase in visitors.

“The first half of the holidays was less than expected, but the second half was much better than expected. We were able to make significant amounts of snow and salvage the holidays,” said Bolich.

Bolich said the two resorts are roughly 60 to 70 percent open, with the goal of reaching approximately 90 percent open by next weekend.

In recent days, Bolich said pent-up demand has led to a large number of users, with attendance numbers for four of the last five days actually exceeding last year’s figures.

Guest feedback has been positive so far.

“I think we exceeded their expectations,” Bolich said.

He is optimistic about the upcoming forecast, noting that while the temperatures will stay cold enough to make snow, the forecast remains relatively mild.

“A mild January is really a blessing because we don’t have to worry about the 20 below or the cold weather,” he explained, adding some lake-effect snow would still be nice.

Crowds were also pleased with the snow at Whitecap Mountains Resort in Iron County, Wis.

“The crowds are happy. The skiers are thankful for the snow we have. It is a solid base with snow on top, they’re not skiing (on) ice,” said Barb Halverson. “... The snow is decent, I’m not going to say I wouldn’t like a foot of fresh powder on the top of it, but it’s certainly decent.”

Halverson confirmed the crowds weren’t as large as previous years but said the resort was looking for the next big push surrounding Martin Luther King Day.

Overall, those working the local ski hills are optimistic that the arrival of snow will continue to draw users and and the hope that the end of the season will drag out and allow for skiers to make up for lost time on the back end in spring.

“There’s a lot of ski season left. We’ve only been open 10 days ... it’s usually an 100 day season,” Noren said. “We’re hoping there is going to be pent-up demand. Weekends maybe will be stronger than we’re used to seeing as we get more open, because people still want to ski. People that didn’t ski during the holidays, or they didn’t get a full ski experience, we hope they’ll be back.”


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