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Image: Ryan Snook

The ski lifts were frozen, but not by ice. It was the second week of February 2015, the tail end of prime ski season, but all 25 lifts at the Summit of Snoqualmie were powered down, immobile above bits of snow that dotted bigger patches of muddy grass. This accumulation wouldn’t trigger a snow day in downtown Seattle. 

It was the winter that wasn’t. The ski season began promisingly, but it wasn’t long before Snoqualmie staffers were hauling 50-gallon drums of snow to the slopes to fill bare spots. The region’s snowpack was just 15 percent of normal, and the resort gave up after only 40 days of operation; it usually manages more than 130. On its slowest day, Crystal Mountain had 11 skiers on the slopes. In March general manager John Kircher called the year “a resounding bummer” while noting that the resort spent $2.5 million on two new lifts “that barely ran.” Likewise, Snoqualmie’s brand-new Rampart chairlift—part of a $3.5 million spruce-up—never opened. 

With a new season upon us, skiers are likely clutching their toques and wondering: Will it snow this year? Here’s what we know: This will likely be one of the strongest El Niño years on record. “We’re already in an El Niño, and its projection is to strengthen,” says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hydrologist Brent Bauer. What we don’t know is what that will mean. 

In an El Niño year ocean temps rise near the equator, which alters the storm tracks that typically lead to the Cascades, pushing them south. When atmospheric rivers pull saturated air from the tropics, the storms that do hit us are warm and above 10,000 feet. That’s the top third of Mount Rainier, not the bunny hill on Snoqualmie. 

“For El Niños we tend to have warmer winters on average, and the signal for precipitation is not nearly as strong,” says Bauer. Warm and dry? Not ideal. But as he notes, “That’s just on average. Weather doesn’t happen on averages.” So there’s a good chance that even if snowfall is below average this winter, it won’t be the buzzkill we saw last winter.

But Washington’s 14 ski mountains don’t just need powder, they need powder hounds, particularly loyal season pass holders who lay out hundreds of dollars months before the first flake falls. To retain them, discounts are everywhere. Crystal and Mount Baker are giving last year’s buyers 30 percent off, while Snoqualmie scraped as much as 80 percent off for last year’s thwarted ski bums who renewed early.

“Even the days we were open, only a handful were decent,” says Summit at Snoqualmie’s marketing director Guy Lawrence. Mount Baker is keeping its reduced preseason renewal rates in place until the mountain gets 30 inches of snow, a sort of protection against buyer’s remorse.

With fire sales like these, how do mountains stay in business? As it turns out, they have plenty of practice. “About every 10 years we’re gonna have a quote-unquote bad year,” says Tiana Anderson, Crystal’s director of marketing. In fact 2004–05 was worse snow wise. 

With a business model so closely tied to the weather, “We’re glorified farmers,” says Snoqualmie’s Lawrence. Most resorts responded last year with reduced operations and staff cutbacks when it became clear that the snowpack wasn’t going to rebound. 

But all the belt-tightening in the world can’t soften these blows. According to the state Department of Revenue, last winter Washington’s ski resort revenue fell 52.5 percent from the previous year. And even that year—good in comparison to 2014–15—was rough: Gross business income was down almost 16 percent during the 2013–14 ski season, which had so much early snow that Crystal opened October 1.

Could we just make our own snow? Maybe. Central Idaho’s Sun Valley is the country’s oldest ski resort, and highly reliant on snowmaking. But the foot of that hill is 6,000 feet above sea level, twice as high as Snoqualmie Pass. Make a snowflake in Sun Valley
and it’s likely to stay frozen; why bother when it’s 50 degrees and drizzling. Still, Kircher promises Crystal will vastly increase its snowmaking: “When heaven won’t help, hoses will.” 

For Washington’s skiers and snowboarders, this season is similar to most others. Take your gear out of storage, remove a little more dust than normal, and hope for the best. Only this year, the skiers and resorts alike would be plenty happy with less than the best—average, even. “It’s not usually dramatic, but it can be,” says NOAA’s Bauer of Washington’s winter snows. Last year, though, “That was dramatic.”

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