Ski Santa Fe riding high into season’s home stretch

April 13, 2019

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

That’s how George Brooks, executive director of industry group Ski New Mexico, describes the 2018-19 ski season in comparison to the previous winter — one of the most dismal in years.

“Last year was the worst in the last five years and one of the worst in the last 20 years, as far as skiers and snow,” Brooks said.

Ski Santa Fe had about 80 inches of snowfall by the end of the 2017-18 season, according to the resort, compared to 276 inches this season — including 3 inches of fresh snow this week — as it heads into its final weekend. That’s better than the 238 inches at Taos Ski Valley, which saw 11 inches of new powder from this week’s storm.

With an average snowfall of more than 170 inches across New Mexico’s ski resorts by late March, Brooks said, this season has been the fifth-best in the past 25 years.

“We’re still going to get more snow this year,” Brooks said last week, before the storm hit. “So it could move up to the top three or so snow-wise.”

Brooks didn’t have a final tally for the number of customers at New Mexico ski areas this season because several are open through Sunday. But he expected total visits to be around 900,000 — more than the industry’s five-year average.

Despite the successful season, there likely will be challenges for New Mexico’s ski industry in the future. David Craft, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said the boom-and-bust nature of the past two winters is the result of climate change — and the state will continue to see such effects of global warming in years to come.

“What we … expect is that we’ll have periods of longer dry spells intermixed with periods of more extreme precipitation,” Craft said.

Even with some expected variation, he said, the state’s overall snowpack levels likely will decline.

Craft noted that a recent climate outlook summary for the nation, produced by the National Centers for Environmental Information and the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites–North Carolina, said that in New Mexico, “Drought intensity is projected to increase and snowpack accumulation is projected to decrease, which will pose a major challenge to New Mexico’s environmental, agricultural, and human systems.”

Ski areas are well aware of the threats posed by climate change.

Ben Abruzzo, area manager of Ski Santa Fe, said the resort’s No. 1 priority when preparing for the winter season is snowmaking, which can help minimize the economic impact of a poor snow year.

Efforts to boost snowmaking capabilities in recent years were the primary reason the resort was able to open last year — and remain open through a dry season.

While Ski Santa Fe currently boasts a base of 69 inches, it had a base of only about 24 inches for most of the last season, much of which was man-made snow.

John Paul Bradley, director of mountain operations for Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort, agreed that an emphasis on snowmaking is an increasing trend in the industry as the weather becomes more unpredictable.

“Everyone is trying to figure out ways to produce the snow in a shorter period of time,” Bradley said. “And if we can make it faster, we can get open … faster — and that’s what our guests want.”

Taos Ski Valley also has invested in its snowmaking capabilities, said Dash Hegeman, the area’s marketing manager.

For now, as the extended ski season comes to a close — with many resorts opening, as planned, on Thanksgiving Day and staying open an extra week — skiing officials and enthusiasts are celebrating a strong season.

Bradley said Sipapu had seen an all-time record of just over 56,000 skiers as of March 29.

Ski Santa Fe saw at least double the number of customers this season as it did the year before, Abruzzo said, though he didn’t have exact numbers.

At Taos Ski Valley, Hegeman said in an email, visitation was up 75 percent.

“I’ve been out on the mountain during some of our powder days and heard season passholders say things like ‘best day ever’ and ‘all-time day at Taos Ski Valley,’ ” Hegeman said.

Along with investing in snowmaking, area resorts also are exploring ways to draw visitors year-round.

Sipapu, Bradley said, offers activities such as Frisbee golf, fly fishing and hiking, and has rental facilities for weddings and family reunions.

Taos Ski Valley is moving forward with developing mountain biking trails.

Brooks, of Ski New Mexico, said it’s essential that ski areas continue investing in activities that provide them with alternative sources of revenue.

However, he added, they are used to facing uncertain winter conditions.

“To quote a great gentleman that was in the ski industry many, many years ago, Ernie Blake, he said, ‘Running a ski area is like running a farm in the Midwest but without the government subsidies,’ ” Brooks said.

“It’s just a crapshoot.”