Skiers, boarders undaunted by El Niño weather forecast

Scenes from opening day at Mt. Baker Ski Area, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013.
Scenes from opening day at Mt. Baker Ski Area, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

As far as Chris Danforth can tell, the two scariest words in long-range ski weather forecasting don’t seem to be making skiers and boarders very nervous.

“Our season pass sales aren’t down, so it doesn’t look like anybody is afraid that it’s going to be a low snow year,” said the Stevens Pass vice president of sales and marketing.

Long-range forecasts call for a 58 percent chance of an El Niño, warming of Pacific Ocean water near the equator, said Johnny Burg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Seattle. El Niño typically translates to warmer than normal weather for the Northwest.

“It could mean higher snow levels than normal,” Burg said. “And when we do get precipitation, it could fall as rain instead of snow.”

It hardly guarantees a bad season for the Northwest. “I don’t put much stock in those long-range forecasts,” Danforth said.

History favors Danforth’s optimism. El Niño got the blame for the epically bad ski season of 2004-05, when skier visits dropped to 500,000 from 1.9 million the previous year. The snowfall total at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park that winter was just 409 inches, one of the lowest on record.

But most El Niño years, it has thrown only hiccups into the season.

When El Niño visited for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the season started late and made for less than ideal conditions during the Games. There was even talk of having to use trucks to haul snow to venues such as Cypress Mountain that didn’t get a deep enough base. But after the Vancouver Games, Northwest skiers and snowboarders enjoyed ideal conditions for the rest of the season.

Crystal Mountain opened two weeks early during the 2006-07 El Niño winter.

“It (the El Niño forecast) doesn’t mean we won’t get any snow,” Burg said. “We could see days where we get a lot of snow.”

The Summit at Snoqualmie started a new program that guarantees the ski area will be open at least 100 days this season. Resort spokesman Guy Lawrence said the program has nothing do with the long-range forecast, but instead is an effort to give season pass holders a little extra comfort when making a purchase that could cost as much as $619.

For each day fewer than 100 the resort is open this season, pass holders will get 1 percent off their season pass for next season. The Summit is typically open more than 130 days each year.