Here we go again with the weather pendulum. Just when things were looking up at the mountain, Mother Nature decided it was time for another thaw — not the first of the winter — and the quality of the natural conditions took a step back.
History tells us this is not unusual weather for January.
Things were pretty good last week. A 10-day stretch of daily snowfalls had brought the trail report perilously close to a status of 100 percent open. The week had brought the seasonal debut of Upper, Upper Liftline as a legal descent; the Starr headwall had reopened and upper Goat was also open, as well as that gnarly, ledge- and boulder-filled stretch of Goat below Midway.
Make no mistake about it: Skiers and riders were feeling pretty good. Unfortunately, in this world where cellphones provide unbroken access to the latest in weather forecasting, locals and prospective visitors all knew that the outlook for the weekend was not exactly what one might describe as rosy. The dreaded “R” word was in the forecast, temperatures were predicted to go up as high as 50 degrees and, worst of all, major wind gusts were going to play havoc with lift operations.
As things eventually played out, those pessimistic expectations proved mostly accurate. Oddly enough, talking to people who braved the elements, the conditions stayed surprisingly good throughout the weekend.
Warm weather plays havoc with snowpack depths but the surface conditions turn to a very forgiving level of softness that makes for pretty fun sliding. That was the case on Saturday, and it stayed that way throughout the end of Sunday afternoon. Thanks to the Epic Pass, people were making the trip to Stowe from points near and far who probably wouldn’t have ponied up in this dreary weather for a day ticket.
The wind, however, was certainly in play on Saturday. For a while the Triple was basically your only option at Mansfield and eventually the Lookout Double began to run. The impact of that was to lengthen wait times considerably. Rumor had it that lines stretched out to over an hour, though in The Scribe’s experience, rarely does the wait actually reach an hour — though it may seem to be that long.
In his youth, some decades back, when the only way to the top was the Mansfield Single Chair, the line for that lift often began down alongside the parking lot, just a few ski lengths uphill from the Mansfield Base Lodge then known as the state shelter.
This is not an exaggeration. Those lines were so long that they became a social scene and there were complex negotiations that would take place to maintain one’s place in line if, say, someone had a sudden need to seek relief in a nearby restroom — or forested glade.
Sunday was warmer still and less breezy. There were even momentary glimpses of the sun, which, if nothing else, seemed to provide an opportunity to feel better about things even if the snowpack had taken a serious hit.
Less than a week ago, the reading at the WCAX snowstake alongside the upper Toll Road had crept up to 33 inches, within 6 inches of average for the end of the first week of January. Approaching 3 feet of snowpack means skiers and riders can contemplate cautious ventures into the safer sections of the forest that have been given a summer cleaning by mountain ops crews.
Now that window has been shut down by Mother Nature. The stake is down to 18 inches, thanks to a vicious stretch of warm weather, and suddenly there is a long way to go before much of the trail system can be reopened. All is not lost, but if you are a member of the snowmaking team, get ready for around-the-clock operations if the cold weather stays around for a while.
Luckily, the omnipresent weather forecasts living in everyone’s phones predict that the next two weeks will bring a lot of very good snowmaking temperatures ranging from single digits to mid-20s. Thus, most of the locals and the skiers and riders who journey up to Stowe weekend after weekend should find some remarkable improvements in the quality of the surface by the weekend.
Mind you, The Scribe is not predicting that there won’t be some firmness over the next couple of days, but if there are lessons that recent history have taught, it is how remarkable modern snowmaking systems are in their ability when operated by the Mountain Operations crew to generate prodigious quantities of fresh and resilient snow.
Beyond the obvious hit taken over the weekend, the locals also had to suffer the loss of a Tuesday Ski Bum race when the resort announced that, for obvious reasons, the Slalom Hill would not be available for racing since the guns were firing at maximum volume to put the hill back together as soon as possible.
It is times like this when your Scribe is quite happy that he is not professionally involved in the ski business. Running a ski resort is a challenge because of the peaks and valleys — no pun intended — that comes with the reality that success or failure, both in the short term or the long term, are so dependent on the whims of Mother Nature and now comes the looming shadow of something known as climate change.
Hopefully the rest of the winter will bring normal snowfalls and colder weather. “January thaw” is such a part of the annual cycle of winter weather that that term has existed forever in the local lexicon. Think snow!
Kim Brown, a ski bum by winter and a hacker by summer, lives in Waterbury Center with his very understanding family. Email letters to email@example.com.