Lack of snow melts winter fun

Cullowhee’s winter wonderland has been nonexistent this season due to unseasonably warm temperatures. While students may be bummed by the lack of cancelled classes as compared to the 2011 spring semester, local businesses also feel the heat of Mother Nature.

Ski resorts, like Sapphire Valley and Cataloochee, have experienced less business this season because few snow-loving sports fanatics want to ski or snowboard in 60 degree weather. Sapphire Valley, especially, has lost a substantial amount of business.

Steve Martel, director of amenities at Sapphire Valley Ski Resort, said revenue is less than half of what it was last year. This year, the facility has been open for only eight days.

“When you can’t make snow, I guess the days of our ski hills being open are limited,” he said. “You really can’t compensate. It’s like a golf tee time that got rained out… There’s nothing you can do to change the weather.”

While the majority if not all of the snow used at the resort is generated, the weather has been too warm to even create ice pellets that convert into snow for skiing. The pellets immediately melt.

“We never got to the point where we could cool down the ground,” Martel said. “It’s been too warm of a winter to do anything for skiing.”

Cataloochee has experienced less of a hit, but Chris Bates, general manager, said that business is “ten percent off” compared to last year.

“We still have really good visitation days even during the warm weather,” he said.

Even so, the race to create snow has never ended.

Some believe that winter will hit hard late in the season, such as late February or even March. However, Martel believes that even a heavy fall of snow will not help that late in the season.

“As you get deeper in the winter towards spring, it’s almost like your momentum is gone,” he said. “People start to think spring. They’re not thinking ski.”

Base Camp Cullowhee uses Cataloochee Ski Resort for their weekly trips to ski and snowboard.

Josh Whitmore, associate director of outdoor programs at Western Carolina University, said they have only cancelled trips before winter break but have been able to go to the resort for winter fun every other scheduled date this semester.

“There’s been just enough cold snaps,” Whitmore said. “It hasn’t been great conditions, but there has been snow up there.”

Due to the warmer weather, Whitmore’s other programs have been quite popular.

“Our hiking trips… are a little more pleasant,” he added.

Heather Menacof, owner and manager of Black Rock Outdoor Company in Sylva, agreed that this season the hiking and backpacking merchandise has sold better than the skiing and snowboarding gear.

“We’re not so dependable on snow like ski shops,” she said. “Hiking is a balance because weather temperatures have been warmer.”

Menacof continued that to make up for the lack of sales on items, such as insulated boots and ski jackets, the store held more close-out sales, particularly on outerwear.

The businesses are doing all that they can to encourage students, families, and sports lovers to head out and catch a wave a snow while they still can. Sapphire Valley plans to end their season on the first week of March if the weather turns colder. Cataloochee will close on March 25 until the open next season in mid-November.

“We’re just totally at the mercy of the weather,” Martel said.