Ski-area operators across the Northeast are dreaming of a white Christmas but seeing red as temperatures hover above optimal snowmaking levels.
Northeast ski resorts generally try to open by Thanksgiving, but warmer-than-usual nighttime temperatures are delaying some openings, setting up less-than-ideal conditions on the few trails that are open, leading to canceled or postponed races and worrying business owners dependent on the shushing of skis and snowboards.
As of Wednesday, 16 of northern New England's 52 ski areas were open — two in Maine, six in New Hampshire and eight in Vermont.
In Pennsylvania, only one of the state's 24 ski areas had opened as of Tuesday. In upstate New York, the ski areas that are open have very limited terrain.
A nighttime temperature of 10 degrees is considered optimal for snowmaking, but temperatures mostly have stayed in the 20s, reducing snow guns' effectiveness. Ski-area operators prefer to get a base of manmade snow down before natural snowfall hits because it packs down tighter and tends to be more durable.
"We're like farmers: We live and die by the weather," said Bruce McCloy, marketing director at Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire. "This year it's been a little dry and dusty so far."
Operators downplayed the late openings and limited terrain and declined to talk about revenue losses.
"The reality is, it's a crappy season," said Sean Doll, a professor who oversees the ski resort and snow sports management program at Lyndon State College in Vermont. "I can't sugar-coat even though I teach the public relations class here."
Karl Stone, spokesman for the business association Ski-New Hampshire, said the balky start to the season is undesirable, but not unusual. Stone said the early season is tailored more toward die-hard season pass-holders and that ski-area operators are more focused on preparing for the official start of the revenue-making season, which starts in earnest around Christmas.
His counterpart in Vermont, Jen Butson, assured that "the season's going to be in full swing soon."
Tony Vazzano, a meteorologist at North Winds Weather who provides forecasts for 18 northern New England ski areas, said it's not even worth ski areas trying to make snow at, say, 28 degrees.
"Yet, they feel so desperate at this point that some of them are making snow at that temperature just to get a little bit of it down," he said.
Kevin Rosenberg, general manager at Maine's Mount Abram, described what has been coming out of a snow gun's nozzle as "the borderline between snow and water."
The mountain is reeling from a double weather whammy: Its main lodge was struck by lightning and destroyed by fire in July. He said the resort is targeting Saturday for opening day, "but we're still in Mother Nature's hands."
Doug Holler, general manager of Dartmouth Skiway just north of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., said he's waiting on colder temperatures before even predicting when his area would open.
"It's a tough business," Holler said. "There's an old adage that the best way to make a small fortune in the ski business is to start with a large one."
Janice Crawford, president of the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce says it's "nerve-racking" waiting on the weather but that business-owners know "this is the cost of doing business in this realm."
In New York's Catskills and Adirondacks, operators are hoping a predicted cold snap this weekend lets them ramp up snowmaking.
Windham Mountain spokeswoman Beth Barry said the Hudson Valley ski area opened Sunday, missing its Thanksgiving target for a fourth year. She said Tuesday that 20 percent of the mountain's terrain was open.
Upstate New York ski areas are faring better than their counterparts to the south, but they, too, have limited skiing. Both Gore Mountain and Whiteface opened on time the day after Thanksgiving, Olympic Regional Development Authority spokesman Jon Lundin said. But only seven of Gore's 89 trails are open and there's skiing on only 11 of 86 at Whiteface, he said.
Nordic skiers also have been affected by the warmer-than-usual weather. Ruth Hall, office manager for the Maine-based Northeastern Nordic Ski Association said several cross-country ski races slated for early December were cancelled or postponed. "It has been a challenge," Hall said.
Mount Sunapee's McCloy said that at 25 degrees, his state-of-the-art snow guns run at about 25 percent of capacity. At 10 degrees, he said, the guns are at peak performance.
"Everyone's in the same boat," McCloy said. "No one has magic dust they can put on the mountain if it's not cold."