WILMINGTON - As you turn off state Route 86 and drive into Whiteface Mountain Ski Center, the view of the mountain's wide, ribbon-like ski trails and rugged, snow-covered slides is just as impressive this winter as it is any other year.
But look a little closer. In the woods between the ski slopes, which have been blasted repeatedly with man-made snow, there's little to no natural snow on the ground. Grass, brush and rocks are visible under the Cloudsplitter Gondola. Large sections of the Hoyt's High trail, which has no snowmaking, are bare.
Winter is roughly half over, and many people are still waiting for it to get started.
There hasn’t been enough snow so far this year to completely cover the ground beneath the Cloudsplitter Gondola at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington, seen here on Tuesday.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
A barricade, seen on Jan. 24, blocks off the entrance to the then-partially constructed Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace, after it was damaged by a day of rain and warm weather.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Ben Lawrence, a private snow plow driver based in Lake Placid, stands next to his main plow truck on Jan. 14, after one of the few snowstorms the area has seen this winter.
(Photo for the Enterprise – Margaret Moran)
"I don't think we've had a winter (with this little) snow in quite a while," Whiteface Manager Bruce McCulley said this week. "Overall we've had really good skiing, but we're definitely down in skier visits. I think it's just a symptom of the fact that if people don't have snow in their backyards, they don't think about skiing."
The lack of snowfall and the relatively warm weather so far this season has made for a challenging winter for many of the area's downhill and cross-country ski centers, some of which have struggled to stay open. Local hotels, motels, ski shops, private snowplow drivers and other winter-weather-dependent businesses have also taken a hit.
But the mild winter also has had some positive impacts. For example, it's created a windfall in savings for local governments, which haven't been nearly as busy plowing and sanding roads and sidewalks as they were last winter.
Across the Northeast, this has been one of the warmest and least snowy winters on record, with most of the region's temperatures the last couple of months averaging 5 degrees warmer than normal, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University.
Locally, the average daily temperature in January at the National Weather Service automated station at the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear was 17.9 degrees, according to meteorologist Brooke Taber, who works out of the National Weather Service office Burlington, Vt. That's four-and-a-half degrees warmer than the average January temperature recorded at the Lake Clear station since it went on line in 1998, 13.4 degrees.
While that site doesn't record snow totals, Taber provided information from a weather observer in Tupper Lake who has recorded 38.7 inches of snow so far this season. Last year, the same observer recorded 133.5 inches all winter.
Asked to explain the trend, Taber said the position of the jet stream is the key reason why the area has seen warmer temperatures and less snowfall this year. Instead of dipping down low, the jet stream winds that normally bring cold and snow south have been trapped up north.
"We just can't establish a pattern where we can really bring down cold air and have it mix with moisture in the Gulf or along the Atlantic seaboard to produce a heavy snowfall event across the North Country," Taber said.
Alpine ski centers
In a normal year, McCulley said Whiteface would have 100 percent of its terrain open by now. As of Wednesday, however, the mountain was at 75 percent capacity, largely because snowmaking crews have had to re-coat the mountain's primary trails after a series of January thaws.
"Usually what happens when you do get a thaw, you end up going back and making snow on our main arteries to keep those in good shape," he said. "That's what prevents us from moving to newer terrain. We're always trying to keep the main trails in good shape. We're going to be close to what we did last year for snowmaking. It's just that there's less trails open."
Asked how the weather has impacted revenue and skier visits, Olympic Regional Development Authority spokesman Jon Lundin said "ORDA is hurting." In that, the state agency that runs the Whiteface and Gore ski areas and Lake Placid Olympic venues is like many resort businesses in the Northeast. But Lundin and McCulley said they've been getting positive feedback from those who are hitting the slopes.
"People have said they're surprised with how good the conditions have been considering the weather," McCulley said.
The warm weather and rain has caused some headaches at Mount Pisgah Ski Center in Saranac Lake, which is run by the village. The mountain had to push back its opening and closed for at least one day after one of the January thaws.
Manager Charlie Martin reported Wednesday that his crews have been able to make a lot of snow over the past week and said his trails were in very good shape.
Down the road in Tupper Lake, the volunteers who have been running Big Tupper Ski Area the last few years were still praying for snow. The mountain, which has no snowmaking, has only been able to open one day so far this winter.
Cross-country ski centers
The area's cross-country ski centers have also faced an uphill battle this year.
"It's pretty obvious what's going on," said Art Jubin, owner of Cascade Cross-Country Ski Center outside Lake Placid. "No snow, no go. The number of skiers is substantially down because of the limited number of trails we have available to ski."
However, Jubin said business has been good at the center's ski shop, and he's hoping things will pick up by President's Day weekend. He said the lack of snow and consistent cold weather has its pros and cons.
"If you don't have trouble with your roof leaking, and not having to set track and not having to do plowing, that's the nice part about it," Jubin said, "but it's an expensive trade-off."
At the Paul Smith's College VIC, manager Brian McDonnell said the center's network of cross-country ski trails are in "a little better shape than most places" due to a phenomenon he described as pond-effect snow.
"It's like lake-effect snow, only smaller," McDonnell said with a chuckle. "We've been able to keep some snow on the trails, and we have some cross-country ski races planned this weekend."
This is the first year the college has run the VIC, and it implemented a fee system for using the trails. McDonnell said that and the lack of snow haven't scared people away.
"For the most part, people are identifying positively with the connection between paying a small fee and keeping the door open," he said. "Our numbers are solid. I think there's a curiosity factor where people want to see how it's going here; plus we're doing a lot of programming that's drawing people out."
Still, having more snow could make things much better. McDonnell said there have been six thaws since the start of winter.
"There's a dearth of snow," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if the crocuses in front of the library are coming up. A lot of people don't even have that mindset to go skiing. I think a lot of people are going to start hanging up their skis early."
Elsewhere, Dewey Mountain Recreation Center in Saranac Lake, Mount Van Hoevenburg Cross-Country Ski Center outside Lake Placid and the cross-country ski trails at the Tupper Lake Country Club have all struggled to stay open, and have had to cancel or postpone races and other events due to poor trail conditions.
One of the biggest challenges for hotel and motel owners in the Lake Placid area has been getting the word out that there is snow in the mountains and good skiing available at Whiteface.
"It's hard for people to believe it when they look in their backyard and the grass is green," said Mirror Lake Inn owner Ed Weibrecht. "It's doubly hard when we're not getting the message out to the world that we have something to enjoy in the wintertime, and that's very unfortunate."
"Across the Northeast, the big cities are snowless," said Arthur Lussi, whose family owns the Crowne Plaza Resort in Lake Placid. "When I spoke with our reservations department, they told me people are wondering how Whiteface can have so many trails open when they have so little snow. I can't blame them. I was in Montreal last weekend, and there's, like, nothing."
Lussi said business at the hotel in the month of January was comparable to last year, but two weekends were "considerably off" due to the weather: the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, and the Empire State Games last weekend.
He also noted that Lake Placid has plenty of other kinds of activities that people can enjoy regardless of the weather and several "weather-proof" events that take place each winter like youth hockey clinics.
But that isn't the case in many other Adirondack communities, outside Lake Placid.
Maggie Ernenwein, who owns the Park Motel in Tupper Lake, said business is "way down."
"I think a lot of it is the economy, but the weather certainly isn't helping," she said. "I mean, Big Tupper has only been open one day. I haven't seen my usual cross-country skiers and snowshoers."
Ernenwein said she used to break even during the winter months, but that hasn't happened the last two winters.
"The decision may be made to not open next year," she said. "If I'm not making enough to pay for my heat and electric, why stay open?"
Local governments, meanwhile, are saving money due to the lack of snow this winter.
Compared to last December, the village of Lake Placid has spent 6 percent less of its snow budget, which includes the cost of labor, oil and gas, salt and sand, and vehicle maintenance.
"Last year this time, we were looking for ways to get people home so they could even sleep," said Brad Hathaway, village Department of Public Works superintendent. "This year, that is not the case."
"Our overtime is hardly existent this year," said village Mayor Craig Randall.
Town of North Elba Highway Superintendent Larry Straight said he has noticed some differences with this winter.
"We're under on overtime, fuel consumption and just general wear and tear on the vehicles," he said. "I love it (the mild winter), but then, I'm running a budget."
But those in the private snow-removal business have a different opinion.
Harold Peck Sr., of Wilmington, would normally be busy plowing for commercial businesses, residential homes and condominiums. Instead, he said that business is practically nonexistent.
"There's not much winter so far, and it's kind of hurting the pocketbook," Peck said.
Joel Stanton, who does plowing in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Jay, and has approximately 45 clients, said his snowplowing profits are down by $10,000 to $15,000 compared to the same time last year.
"I hope the snow comes soon, so I can get back to work," Stanton said.
So is there any snow in sight? Not anytime soon, according to Taber, the NWS meteorologist.
"Looking at the larger-scale pattern at the end of February and into March, we're looking at temperatures being near normal for this time of year, mainly in the 20s and approaching the 30s," he said. "We don't see any big, large-scale snowstorms in the future, but things can always change as we head into the month of March."
Lake Placid News Staff Writer Margaret Moran contributed to this report.