The hurricane that devastated the US east coast is proving a godsend for ailing snow resorts in the west, writes Laura Bly.
A blanket of white from Hurricane Sandy is a welcome side effect at US ski resorts hoping for a rebound from last year's paltry snowfalls and unusually warm temperatures. The $US6 billion-a-year ski resort business logged its worst season in two decades last winter, with a 15 per cent drop in skier and snowboarder visits and the lowest national average snowfall since the early 1990s, according to a survey by the Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association. About half the responding resorts either opened late or closed early, particularly in the south-east, north-east and Pacific south-west.
But a flurry of post-Sandy snowstorms from California to Colorado late last month means the US ski season is "launching into pretty high gear", meteorologist Joel Gratz, of OpenSnow.com, says.
At Lake Tahoe early snowfalls and cold temperatures have allowed resorts to crank up what are touted as the largest snowmaking systems on the west coast. Further east, Utah's Alta, Brighton, Solitude and Snowbird resorts have just opened.
Such spectacular early-season dumps aren't unprecedented, Gratz notes, and they may - or may not - be harbingers of a snowy winter ahead. But, he says, "they sure get the juices flowing, especially after last year".
Several resorts are marking landmark anniversaries this season, including Utah's Alta, where fireworks and a torchlight parade on January 13 will commemorate the debut, in 1939, of the state's first chairlift. Vail's celebration of its 50th anniversary is under way, with the launch of a 10-passenger high-speed gondola that features heated, cushioned seats and free wi-fi.
In an attempt to convince leery holidaymakers that a dismal showing by Mother Nature needn't sink ski plans, a growing number of resorts are touting "snow guarantees". Until December 20, Colorado's Winter Park will let visitors reschedule their trips to later in the season (on a space-available basis) as long as the resort is notified 48 hours before the original arrival.
Meanwhile, north-east resorts in particular have invested millions in snowmaking infrastructure and upgrades. Near Flagstaff, the 75-year-old Arizona Snowbowl Resort has spent about $12 million on a new system that will use reclaimed wastewater to make artificial snow - the first in North America. Jackson Hole has dramatically expanded its intermediate terrain in recent years and this season, a new high-speed quad lift in the mid-mountain Casper area will give intermediate skiers easier access to runs such as Sundog.
Off the slopes, the venerable Hotel Jerome on Aspen's Main Street reopens in mid-December after a four-month renovation. Now operated by Auberge Resorts, the 123-year-old Jerome was a hangout for late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who used its J-Bar as campaign headquarters when he ran for sheriff in 1970.
Do note, however: despite Colorado voters' decision to legalise recreational marijuana use, the US federal government classifies cannabis as an illegal drug, and state law prohibits skiers from being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Possession of up to 28 grams will be allowed pending the amendment's certification, but sales from state-sanctioned stores won't start until 2014.
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