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Ski resorts are hoping for a return to winter

| Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, 8:57 p.m.
A bulldozer is used to clear snow from a parking area at Seven Springs Mountain Resort on October 30, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review

Snow was scarce last year across most of the country, Western Pennsylvania included.

So when Superstorm Sandy sat and dropped a foot of the white stuff on the Laurel Highlands last month, ski resort operators started snapping pictures to post to web sites and social networks.

Even if it wasn't enough to get people on the hill, photos of the slopes blanketed in snow at least got them thinking about it.

“People are just dying to get back out and ski so early snow definitely helps get everyone excited and at least puts us back on the radar,” said Laura Argenbright, marketing director at Hidden Valley.

With resorts either open or on the verge of opening across the country, the ski industry is hoping to rebound from one of the worst seasons in decades.

Temperatures were up and snowfall was down significantly nationwide in 2011-12, as were skier and snowboarder participation numbers and retail sales. According to research by the National Ski Areas Association, resort visits dropped from a record-high 60.54 million during a snowy 2010-11 season to 50.8 million last season, a 20-year low.

At Hidden Valley, recently-upgraded snowmaking equipment allowed them to experience a modest increase in visitors, but they had to work to get the word out.

“If you're sitting home with a brown back yard, you're not going to think about going out and skiing,” Argenbright said. “We had to keep hammering the message all winter long that you may not have snow, but we do.”

This year, resort operators are hoping forecasts for temperatures and snow closer to normal come to fruition.

“Of course, we're hoping for much more snow than average,” said Seven Springs spokeswoman Anna Weltz.

Weltz credits their snowmaking equipment and crew for the resort's ability to have the snow they did last year. Still, like most ski areas, they opened slightly behind schedule and closed slightly ahead of schedule.

Among the changes at the resort for the coming season, Weltz said, are further upgrades to their snowmaking and grooming equipment. They're also creating a seventh terrain park designed for children ages 4 to 7. Seven Springs' terrain parks and pipes have been rated No. 1 on the East Coast for four consecutive years by readers of TransWorld Snowboarding and SKI magaizines.

Hidden Valley also increased its snowmaking capabilities and made improvements to the Voyager trail on the North Summit, widening it to twice its original size and adding lights to provide an easier way down for beginners.

Both Seven Springs and Hidden Valley as well as WISP, in McHenry, Md., hope to open either the first week or weekend of December. Blue Knob, in Claysburg, Pa., has a tentative opening date of Dec. 14.

At Snowshoe, West Virginia, the 28 inches generated by Sandy coupled with a few smaller storms and temperatures cold enough to make snow allowed the resort to open on Wednesday, the earliest opening date in 15 years.

After a rough 2011-12, the out-of-the-way resort approximately four hours south of Pittsburgh is offering a guarantee to encourage people to make the drive. From December 15 through March 15, if Snowshoe doesn't have more skiable terrain open than any other mountain in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, the next day of skiing is free.

“We're confident we're going to have the best snow, and we wanted to show people that coming to Snowshoe is going to be worth their time,” said Krysty Ronchetti, public relations director for the resort.

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7980 or kprice@tribweb.com.

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