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The Weather Outside Is Frightful

Liberty Mountain's Eric Flynn says a third of the season is already lost.
Liberty Mountain's Eric Flynn says a third of the season is already lost. (Liberty Mountain Webcam)
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007

It's tough to begrudge these weeks of spring-like weather during what should be the dead of winter -- unless you're part of the multibillion-dollar ski industry. With its record-high temperatures and shortage of snowflakes, this winter is shaping up to be the bleakest in 25 years for regional ski resorts.

Resorts typically collect nearly 30 percent of their revenue during the second half of December and first week of January, according to the National Ski Areas Association. This year, however, lodges within a few hours' drive of Washington are relying on small patches of rapidly melting man-made snow, and several resorts have been forced to close their ski operations altogether.

At Liberty Mountain Resort in Carroll Valley, Pa., a popular destination for Washington skiers and snowboarders, the slopes have been closed since Dec. 15.

"We're a month late, so we've probably lost about a third of our season," said Eric Flynn, general manager of the resort and a 20-year veteran of the ski business. "This is the strangest season I've ever seen."

The freakishly warm weather also has taken its toll on employees. At the height of a typical season, about 1,200 people work on Liberty Mountain. This year, the resort isn't hiring the normal cadre of part-time and seasonal workers, and even the 60 regular employees aren't putting in a full week.

"We've had to reduce hours and cut shifts," Flynn said. Without money coming in to pay salaries, he's now giving out unpaid leaves, and some people are on unemployment until things cool down.

Whitetail Resort in Mercersburg, Pa., just north of Maryland, closed Dec. 23 after managing to stay open for 15 days. Massanutten Resort, near Harrisonburg, Va., closed its slopes Thursday, although the snow-tubing park still functions on a thin sheet of ice. Roundtop in Lewisberry, Pa., was down to two of its 16 trails last week, and it finally closed Friday.

"This is coming at an especially bad time," said Chris Dudding, marketing director at Roundtop. The two weeks after Christmas, when many people are on vacation, is usually a lucrative time for the resort. "It's going to start to get critical soon if the weather doesn't change."

Natural snowfall is not essential to a successful season. Resorts have spent millions upgrading their snowmaking equipment over the past decade. But without below-freezing temperatures to keep the snow, the skiing industry is losing its hottest commodity. On many of the region's mountains, expensive snowmaking machines have been rendered useless, surrounded by mud and grass rather than snow.

Some local resorts are scraping by, relying on an ever-shrinking supply of artificial snow. Wisp Resort in McHenry, Md., still has 15 trails open, surviving on the snow made early last month. At Bryce Resort in Basye, Va., the beginners area at the bottom of the hill is the only section with snow cover. Both resorts have attracted fewer than half the skiers they did by this time last year.

"We're losing snow every day," said Manfred Locher, co-director of ski operations at Bryce. "The forecasts don't look good. We may have to close temporarily."

People still looking for a dose of winter sports are heading to local ice-skating rinks, where business has been booming. The tiny rink set up in Reston Town Center was crowded with kids and vacationers last week, although puddles spread quickly under the warm sun.

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