The last time the News wrote about Mt. Hood’s snowpack was Feb. 4 of this year, and we, just like many others in the region, were hopeful that the typically prodigious snowfall months of February and March would help turn around what had been a dismal winter recreation season.
Nearly two months later, the situation hasn’t improved. Over that time period, the Mid-Columbia basin, which includes the Sandy, Lower Deschutes, and Hood rivers, has seen its snowpack dwindle from 14 to 7 percent of normal according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Mt. Hood’s has dropped from 32 to 24 percent, and at Red Hill, located southwest of Parkdale, the snowpack has dropped from 7 percent to 2 percent of normal.
At the Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort, skiers and resort administrators rejoiced alike as 11 inches of snow fell over a two-day period earlier this week in what was one of the biggest dumps of the season. Those 11 inches pushed the season-to-date snow total to 99 inches — helpful, yes, but still paltry when you consider that last year in the month of February, 134 inches fell in a three-week period. And by Thursday afternoon of this week, unseasonably warm temperatures returned, with the mercury reaching around 60 degrees.
While Mother Nature seems content to continue wreaking havoc on this year’s winter recreation season, she has also forced Meadows to find innovative ways to make sure as many runs stay open as possible.
Back in November, Meadows began hoarding snow it had taken from its parking lots to save, quite literally, for a rainy day. Warm temperatures and rain earlier this month melted what little snow remained at the lodge, and required Meadows to shut down for four days last week and use its reserves to help shore up the resort’s base area and create a new park off the Cascade lift. Dave Tragethon, executive director of social media and public relations, said the resort also used snow from the decommissioned Shipyard rail park to fortify the base, and in some cases, took “bucket loads at a time from a Snowcat” to patch up areas lacking in coverage.
“It’s about getting creative and managing the snow,” he explained. “We are literally using snow that fell before we opened in November.”
This kind of snow management began last season, with reserves stored in the Sunrise parking lot and distributed with a high-capacity dump trailer. He credited Director of Slope Maintenance Sam Cordell and Meadows’ vehicle maintenance crew for realizing the need for the equipment early on.
“This has been a season-saver and a season-changer for us,” Tragethon said of the snow management. “Everybody would like to have more snow than we have right now… but five years ago, if you were to tell me that Meadows would be able to operate on a 22-inch base in March, I think a lot of people would have said, ‘That’s not possible.’”
In addition to getting creative with the snow, Meadows has also gotten creative with ways to make sure people keep coming to the mountain. Administration has offered such things as good condition guarantees (guests could ski under an hour and if they didn’t like the conditions, get their lift tickets refunded), discounted lift tickets for those who have passes from other resorts, additional free midweek demo days, and other perks. Right now, Meadows guarantees season pass holders for next year will see at least one high-speed quad (lifts like Mt. Hood Express, Cascade, etc.), will remain open for at least 100 days — for every day under 100 days, guests will receive a 1-percent discount up to 50 percent.
For having one of the top-three worst winters in Meadows’ 47 years of operations — according to Tragethon — attendance hasn’t been impacted at a comparable level. January was near average, February a little less so — partly due to the fact that whatever snow has fallen was received just in time for historically busy days such as Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in January, Presidents Day weekend in February, and now, spring break in March. Tragethon reported that on Tuesday, at the tail-end of the storm, attendance was “about twice the size of an average weekday crowd here for spring break.” January, which is typically “learn to ski or snowboard month,” was also a “record month” for skiing and snowboarding lessons at Meadows, said Tragethon, noting that “our ski school staff has really knocked it out of the park this year.”
Still, it’s not all rosy. Terrain is of course still limited, with Vista now joining the Heather Canyon, Hood River Express, and Stadium (although it is used occasionally for uphill traffic) lifts that are not operating due to the lack of snowpack. Tragethon did say much of Vista’s terrain could still be reachable thanks to the Cascade Express lift. Events in April, like Mazot Fest and the Sno-Kona Pond Skim, are now listed as canceled on Meadows’ website (skihood.com), although Tragethon said that “it’s still an event we’d like to do if conditions allow.”
As of right now, Meadows is still shooting to have daily operations go through April 12. But even in late March and April, there’s still a chance for some snow — indeed, as of Friday morning, Temira Lital’s “The Gorge is my Gym,” blog (thegorgeismygym.com) is calling for 6 to 10 inches of snow between Monday and Wednesday.
“We are, at this point, subject to what the weather brings us,” Tragethon said.