Tim Jones: Unwelcome surprises on the slopes

Friday February 8, 2013

This is the Northeast after all. You have to expect changeable weather.

In the last week, for example, we’ve seen sub-zero nights, temps in the 50s, torrential rain, sleet, snow, and gale-force winds. You name it, Mother Nature has thrown it at us. And, we’re still standing.

More important, the lifts are still turning at ski resorts; snowguns and groomers are buffing up surfaces; and skiers are still smiling as they carve up the white stuff.

But variable weather has its price. Let’s face it. Most of the time, ski conditions are better than you imagine they could be. Modern snowmaking systems can create an artificial blizzard any time the temperature drops below freezing. Modern grooming machines can take almost anything frozen and slice, dice and puree it into a smooth, uniform surface that’s a delight to ski on.

The cost of snowmaking and grooming (and high-speed lifts) is the big reasons ski tickets cost so much these days, and why we are willing to pay the price.

Snow reporting, too, has gotten a lot more reliable, mainly because it’s had to. This is one area where the Web and social media have had a major impact. Ski resorts simply can’t get away with even the mildest exaggeration. The first skiers on the mountain on any given day can tell a few thousand of their closest friends exactly what conditions are like. So ski areas, too have learned to tell it like it is rather than as they wish it were.

But, every once in a while something goes wrong. The weather throws a nasty curve.

Or man-made snow that was blown a little wet doesn’t dry out quite as fast as planned. Or two grooming machines break down at once. Or all of the above.

It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it takes skiers and even snow reports by surprise

Earlier this season, I happened to hit one of these "bad snow days" at a resort that’s normally noted for the quality of its snowmaking and grooming. They were still trying to get the entire area open, and a cold snap a few days prior had allowed them to blow huge "whales" of snow on a number of unopened trails.

Those trails were all to have been groomed overnight and everyone I talked to was excited about hitting freshly groomed snow on trails they hadn’t skied yet this season. The snow report that morning said "machine groomed packed powder," but what was on the hill was not exactly that.

My first run, I dropped into a popular blue square trail and was disappointed to find ice chunks of all sizes and shapes.

Next I tried a green circle; same problem. My third run was down a newly opened black diamond that was in such bad shape, I didn’t think it should have been open.

So I headed back to the lodge, went to the customer-service desk, explained the problem, and, no questions asked, they gave me a voucher for a return visit.

Yes, it was disappointing and yes, I had wasted gas money to get there, but I’d rather use the ticket on good snow.

Since then, I’ve asked a number of ski resorts how they handle such days. Nobody really wanted to admit that they ever happen, but most pointed to some sort of "snow guarantee" hidden in the fine print on their website. Most put a time limit on the guarantee, usually an hour after purchase. None of the places I talked to wanted an unhappy customer complaining around the Internet and all have a mechanism to avoid that.

Remember, the weather is always beyond anyone’s control, and both equipment and people can break down at inopportune times. If snow conditions aren’t good enough on one day, chances are they will be the next time you ski.

Tim Jones can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com.


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