Though she may follow historical patterns, Mother Nature apparently is not a history buff.
With the milestone 30th annual celebration looming, Mt. Baker Ski Area has had to put a hold on its signature event, rescheduling the Legendary Banked Slalom for March 19-22 because of a shortage of snow so far this season.
“It’s very painful,” Mt. Baker Vice President of operation Gwyn Howatt said in a phone interview. “It was a painful decision, but that’s the nature of this business, and it is a ‘quote’ natural halfpipe. Given that, we’re used to the whims of Mother Nature. ... It’s not the best timing considering this is supposed to be the 30th, but it will only add to the folklore in the longterm of the event.”
The expanded four-day celebration of the iconic snowboard race was originally scheduled to be held Feb. 19-22. But lighter than usual snowfall this season created an issue with forming the course for snowboarders to slalom down.
The Mt. Baker snow report, as of 5:27 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 3, reported 5 inches of new snow in the past 24 hours, giving the ski area a 38-inch base at Heather Meadows and 55 inches at Pan Dome.
But Howatt said it is the lower areas of the ski area — around the bottom of Chair 4 and White Salmon — where there are snow troubles this season.
“Mid mountain, up, we’ve still got pretty good conditions,” Howatt said. “But where the natural halfpipe is, that’s where we’ve had some challenges.”
This marks the first time Mt. Baker has rescheduled the LBS, though they did have to cancel it in 2005, Howatt said.
“This year, we decided with 30th anniversary and all the other things going around, rather than straight up canceling, we’d at least make effort,” Howatt said.
And there is hope that holding off for a month could result in better conditions, based on a couple of seasons that followed similar snow fall patterns.
The 2004-05 season saw 253 inches of snow fall in February, March and April until the end of the ski season, and in 1976, another season that saw similar conditions to this one, more than 100 inches of snow fell in March.
“Going back and reviewing those two seasons that were similar to this year, it’s real weird,” Howatt said. “It’s like the switch flipped and it just started dumping snow in late February and March, and it just didn’t stop.”
Howatt said it’s not just about how much snow falls that will determine whether they are able to stage the LBS in March or not, but also the type of snow that falls and the weather conditions around that snowfall.
Wetter snow is better for packing the natural halfpipe course and holds up better to racing than colder, fluffy snow, Howatt said, and even if wet snow falls, a cold, dry snap shortly afterward can suck the moisture right out of the snow. Warm temperatures and rain also impact the snow, and the weather conditions around the March 19-22 race dates could influence the course.
Howatt estimated that 2 to 3 feet of good snow would be needed on the halfpipe for the ski area to stage a successful race in March.
“We’re certainly mindful that people have made travel arrangements to come here and race,” Howatt said. “We’re balancing that with the best forecast when we get close to the event, and we’ll adjust our plans. In March, we need to start setting up the course the Saturday before — (March) 13-14. We’ll see where we are before then and make a call that is fair for everybody.”
Howatt said it is still way too early to say whether the snow and weather conditions could impact another iconic Whatcom County event — the Memorial Day weekend Ski to Sea Race, which annually begins with the cross country skiing and downhill skiing/snowboarding legs at Mt. Baker. In 2005, the course for the cross country skiing leg had to be adjusted because of snow conditions.
“Everybody do their snow dances — keep on it,” Howatt joked.