Thanks to the cold, the Berkshires' $50 million ski economy is off to a hot start

Thanks to the early cold, Jiminy Peak in Hancock made enough snow to open several trails earlier than normal and only on the weekends: 16 trails with bases ranging from 18 to 48 inches were open for the first and second weekends of business this month. Jiminy Peak will open for full weeks in mid-December, as is typical.

Think snow: It's what skiers and ski area employees are doing. An early record-breaking cold snap this month has helped make those wishes a reality.

The cold has given Berkshire County's ski areas a head start on making snow, which requires temperatures below 25 degrees Fahrenheit. And making early snow makes for a better skiing experience, which allows more return visits of skiers who enjoyed their trip. And that affects the bottom line of the entire Berkshire County economy and its participants.

A $50 million business

When you think snow, think $50 million to the Berkshire County economy.

"Cross your fingers and wish for snow," said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the county's economic development organization and regional tourism council. "It's good for our economy here in the Berkshires."

The local ski industry generates "north of" $50 million in annual economic activity, according to Tyler Fairbank, CEO of the Fairbank Group, which owns several ski resorts, including Jiminy Peak in Hancock.

When skiers spend money at a Berkshire ski resort, they also spend at area restaurants and stores, especially if they stay overnight or for two or three days, according to Butler.

"When we get a snowy winter, visitors at ski areas have a significant ripple effect on the economy," Butler said. "Ski areas are significant economic anchors for the winter months."

Stockpiling snow

When a cold snap happens this early in the season, most ski operations make and stockpile giant piles of snow, when temperatures are coldest. In the event that warmer weather swoops in, the ski areas have snow in reserve since, in big piles, the snow doesn't melt as quickly.

For more northerly ski areas, like Jiminy Peak and Berkshire East in Charlemont, they have enough confidence in cooler temperatures to spread out the man-made snow and open the slopes for weekends until mid-December, taking every opportunity the weather allows to make snow.

That means several dozen snow-makers around the county typically are up all night long, running up and down the slopes clearing water and air lines and spreading out the snow with groomers. This will continue until the base snowpack is deep enough for a quality skiing experience.

The process will repeat itself after most warm-ups and rain events through mid-March, and sometimes longer, if the weather seems like it will extend cold temperatures later, into April.

Thanks to the early cold, Jiminy Peak and Berkshire East made enough snow to open several trails earlier than normal and only on the weekends. Both will open for full weeks in mid-December, as is typical.

At Jiminy Peak, 16 trails with bases ranging from 18 to 48 inches were open for the first and second weekends of business this month.

"It sure is nice when Mother Nature helps us out," Fairbank said. "And conditions are unreal — but that's hard to translate to someone who doesn't have snow in their yard."

Weather — or not

Looking into the season, everything depends on the weather.

Good ski weather in December is crucial for ski areas, but the month's weather can be unpredictable. The holiday week is an important one for the ski industry, especially when ski areas are able to open and take advantage of the popular time when families go on ski vacations.

Ski areas watch the weather carefully all through December.

"December can be a really funny month," Fairbank said. "You never know what you're going to get. You have to take it week by week."

After Christmas week, the two other big ski times are Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and Presidents Day week. Both can be undone by a warm spell.

At Jiminy Peak, officials said the resort had 265,000 skier visits in 2009-2010, after an in-house record of 275,000 in 2008-2009.

Fairbank said Jiminy typically gets 200,000 to 250,000 skier visits in a season, and its workforce is about 1,000 at the height of the ski season.

At Bousquet Ski Area in Pittsfield, owner Sherry Roberts said the planned opening is Dec. 13, and full-time snowmaking will start around the first of the month. During the cold snap, Bousquet generated a few piles of snow to test equipment and get a head start.

Bousquet employs 100 to 120 people during ski season.

Rich Edwards, director of sales at Catamount Ski Area in South Egremont and Hillsdale, N.Y., said the owners of Berkshire East bought Catamount recently and have been making investments in snowmaking and in the visitor experience by adding 100 snow guns, a new groomer and opening a new 11,000-square-foot lodge.

Catamount also has five new trails, bringing the total to 43. Catamount could open as early as Nov. 30, and Dec. 6 at the latest, according to Edwards.

Last year, episodes of rain made for a bumpy season, Edwards said.

"So, this year, we're just looking for some good, cold weather," he said.

At Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, several piles of snow dot the slopes, and snow-makers are waiting to go full bore to get the trails ready, said Dillon Mahon, marketing director.

"All we need to make snow is cold, water and air," he said. "We've got the water and air. Now, all we need is the cold."

Mahon said Butternut will open in early December, "depending on what the weather does."

The crews at Otis Ridge are in that same wait-and-see position, ready to make snow but lacking the colder temperatures. According to Eric VanOostveen, general manager, opening day tentatively is set for Dec. 7 for all 11 trails. Otis Ridge employs about 100 people at peak season.

Representatives from Berkshire East did not return messages seeking comment, although the website is publicizing skiing this weekend and some of the trails were open last weekend as well.

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.