In early December, when late arriving snow delayed the opening of the Summit at Snoqualmie and White Pass, ski area officials weren’t sure how long it would take to recover.
Not long, as it turns out.
Entering the final weekend of what they consider their holiday period, marketing directors at both ski areas said the season already is surpassing 2011-12.
“We’re very stoked with what we are seeing,” said Guy Lawrence of the Summit at Snoqualmie.
The Summit saw a 29 percent increase in visitors compared with last year’s holiday. This helped the ski area overcome a Dec. 7 opening, 18 days later than last season.
“It’s been great for us,” said Kathleen Goyette of White Pass.
The ski area has seen an increase in visitors of 5 percent to 15 percent each day over the past three weeks, she said. This helped offset opening Dec. 7, five days later than usual.
Credit for the ideal holiday ski season goes to more than the weather, although an above average snowpack and sunny skies deserve their share of recognition.
“The way school breaks fell this year was just great,” Goyette said.
Typically, Goyette said, school holiday breaks result in a two-week spike in business. This year, with some school districts breaking before Christmas week and others not returning until Jan. 7, the period of increased visitation was closer to three weeks, she said.
“And we never really got overcrowded, which is nice, too,” Goyette said. “It’s just been steadily good.”
The diversity of school breaks was good for business at Crystal Mountain as well, marketing director Tiana Enger said.
While Crystal recently stopped releasing monthly visitation numbers, Enger said its holiday visitation was higher than last year and above average for the third year in row.
Before the season began forecasters predicted a mild El Niño winter (usually warmer and drier than normal) after two consecutive La Niña winters (usually above average snow fall). Still, ski area officials said they weren’t nervous.
“I’ve learned it doesn’t matter what I expect,” Lawrence said. “The weather does what it does and we get what we get.”
And what ski areas got is a better December than last year. All six ski areas in Washington’s Cascade Mountains had a snowpack at least 118 percent of normal when the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center last collected data on Tuesday.
“It has been exceptional,” said Scott Ryan, a West Seattle resident who has skied the Summit five times since Christmas with his 7-year-old son, Brennan. “It snowed early in the break, and it has stayed so cold the snow has been really good. The groomers have been great the last few days.”
Ryan said he skied Alpental’s backcountry Dec. 18 and then Park City, Utah, on Dec. 19.
“The snow at Alpental was better and deeper and lighter,” Ryan said.
Other popular Western Washington snow recreation areas also have more snow than normal.
Hurricane Ridge at Olympic National Park has 97 inches (167 percent of normal), beating its record of 91 inches set in 2007. Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park is 138 percent of normal with 126 inches.
Of the ski areas, Mount Baker has the deepest snowpack at 130 inches, 146 percent of normal.
Crystal was the farthest above normal with a depth of 67 inches, 156 percent of normal.
“It’s a good surprise,” said Crystal’s Enger. “But it’s not the first time we’ve been surprised (by the weather). We take it as it comes. … Right now we are thankful.”
It’s impossible to predict how the season will play out for skiers and snowboarders, said Kenny Kramer, director of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.
“We could see some rain next week,” he said. “So take advantage of it while you can.”
The National Weather Service is predicting snow for Snoqualmie Pass today, with a chance of rain starting Sunday night.
Kramer said avalanche risk is low. However, conditions are ripe for the formation of hoarfrost – a layer of frost growing on the snow – that could increase the chance of avalanches once it’s covered by fresh snow.
Before their trips, backcountry travelers should check the avalanche center’s forecast at NWAC.us or via a smartphone app. Kramer said the center eliminated its avalanche forecast hotline this winter because so few people called.
Even the prediction of blue bird days giving way to more precipitation isn’t all bad for ski areas Lawrence said.
“It will be nice to freshen up an already good snowpack,” he said. “… We haven’t had a bad day yet.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497