Pleasant surprise

Storms blanket Mount Hood with solid base of snow, setting up early ski season and active winter, say forecasters

November 9, 2005

From the parking lot at Mt. Hood Meadows, you can make out the sound of two teenage boys whooshing off a small slope toward a self-made kicker. When the wind stops long enough, you can hear the low rumble of a faraway groomer, preparing the slopes.

On Friday, those distinct, subtle sounds will be gone, swallowed by the bustle of hundreds of skiers, chairlifts, food lines and radios.

Mt. Hood Meadows general manager Dave Riley announced Friday it would open five to seven of its 11 chair lifts for skiers and snowboarders on Nov. 11.

On Tuesday morning, the ski area reported a 38-inch base.

Riley said the area actually has enough snow to open now.

“But we’re going to open up with more than what people are used to seeing on opening day,” he said. “Conditions are going to be much better than what we’ve seen for a normal opening. We’ve taken the time to groom and re-groom the runs.”

The Nov. 11 start date is earlier than average, but not nearly early enough for a record.

The earliest season-beginner in Meadows’ history is Oct. 21. It’s opened on Halloween twice.

The start date follows Timberline’s, which began running a few of its seven chair lifts on Saturday. It also follows Washington ski area openings such as Mt. Baker and Crystal Mountain, which opened last week.

An early opening allows Meadows to cash in on the Thanksgiving holiday, one of the ski industry’s most lucrative.

It also helps build skier enthusiasm as the Christmas and New Year’s holidays approach.

That is a trend that Meadows and other Northwest ski areas could not enjoy last year.

A high pressure system off the North American coast deflected weather systems carrying snow south toward Utah, New Mexico and California.

Meanwhile the high pressure system exiled the Northwest to uncharacteristic dry and sunny days.

Meadows didn’t open until Dec. 18 in 2004. And it shut down two times before its final closure in May.

It was, according to Riley, the worst ski season on record.

That fact reflected itself in the number of skier visits last season — 190,722 compared to an average year, which lures about 350,000 skiers to Meadows’ slopes.

Hood River County businesses saw the effects directly.

This year appears more promising, however.

A month ago, weather forecasters were predicting a wetter and warmer-than-average winter.

But last Friday, a handful of weather experts met at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to present the forecasts each had devised based on their own research.

“I think consensus is that this is going to be a much more active winter than the one we had last year,” said George Taylor, the state’s climatologist. “Certainly that was my forecast. Where we differed was the character of the activity. How will that play out? Some think it will be dominated by cold weather more than wet weather. I think it will be dominated by wet more than cold … When it comes to snowfall what matters most is precipitation. The really snowy years are the wet years. If this is truly a wet year, then it will be one with abundant snow.”

Taylor is basing his forecast on a few indicators:

The Pacific Ocean, specifically the large mass of slow migrating water off the coast of South America. The temperature of that water determines whether we, here in the Northwest enjoy an El Nino winter or a La Niña one.

“We were in this weak El Niño, which gave us somewhat mild and dry winters,” Taylor said. “Things are really changing quickly off the coast of South America. We’re moving toward La Nina.”

History is the other clue into which Taylor is tapping for his forecast. The year that most closely resembles this year.

And that winter, Taylor says, is the winter of 1995-1996.

That was the year of the November flood, the December wind storm and the Great Flood of 1996.

“It’ll be active, but I’m not suggesting that we’ll have a flood like February ‘96 nor a windstorm like in December,” he said.

For skiers, kayakers and farmers, Taylor’s forecast might be the most optimistic.

Other experts, he said, predicted a colder than normal winter, but fairly dry.

So far this fall, Taylor’s forecast appears fairly accurate.

Mount Hood has already exceeded this month’s average amount of snow water by 1.5 inches, according to Oregon Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The 14.9 inches of rain that has fallen on Mount Hood since Oct. 1 is also better than average — 133 percent of normal.

But, warns John Lea, hydrologist for the ONRCS, trends could reverse quickly.

“Last year started off almost the same way,” Lea said. “And then November was an extremely dry month. We got three inches of water. December was even worse. This year, however, the early indications look like November will stay pretty wet.”

The weather and winter-long forecast had encouraged Meadows general manager Riley so much that he decided to extend by one week the time to purchase a season pass.

That one week extension, which ends Nov. 13, allows skiers to purchase seasons passes at drastically reduced rates compared to the normal price of $999.

“In celebration of the early opening, we want to give everyone the opportunity to purchase a season pass at the lowest possible price,” Riley said in a press release.

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