Jim Miller has been shoveling since Christmas. He and a dedicated group of parent volunteers have spent many evenings shoveling snow from the woods onto the trails at the Casper Mountain Trails Center. Without their efforts, the center would be closed.
On Wednesday morning, Miller, the coach of the Kelly Walsh cross-country ski team, was at it again. Some 300 kids from across the state are set to race in a 1 kilometer sprint this weekend. Looking out at the trail, he reflected on the winter thus far:
“It’s probably the worst we’ve seen it,” said Miller, who has coached at Kelly Walsh for two decades. “It’s nuts, totally nuts.”
Winter has not been kind to snow enthusiasts of all sorts in southeastern and central Wyoming, particularly in Natrona County. Snowpack in the northern Laramie Range, including Casper Mountain, is at 60 to 70 percent of its normal, 30-year average.
Lack of snow hurts business. From snowmobiling to skiing, the slow start to winter has dragged down everything from equipment to ticket sales.
The trails center was scheduled to open after Thanksgiving, but had to postpone its opening twice. Hogadon Ski Area, the neighboring downhill resort on Casper Mountain, opened on a limited basis on
Dec. 30, more than a month later than usual. Today, two runs are open.
Ticket sales are down at both resorts, officials report. At Hogadon, day tickets sell at a discounted rate of $13 to entice skiers to the mountain. Normally they sell for $40.
“We are definitely battling Mother Nature,” Casper Leisure Services Marketing Director Anna Wyttenback said. The city owns and operates Hogadon.
Tyler Clark and Lucas Klein, both of Casper, are typically Hogadon regulars. This winter, the pair has visited the mountain twice. Last weekend, the duo went to Winter Park Resort in Golden, Colo., and will likely head to Loveland Ski Area in Colorado this weekend.
“I’d be up here twice a week at least,” under normal conditions, Clark said, standing at the top of the mountain Wednesday. “It’s been pretty horrible.”
Hogadon’s loss has been other mountains’ gains. Meadowlark Ski Lodge in Ten Sleep and the Snowy Range Ski and Recreation Area in Laramie are drawing larger-than-usual numbers of Casper-area skiers this winter, officials said. At Meadowlark, small but consistent storms and the resort’s high altitude have helped the mountain to a decent start this year, said owner Holli Jones. Aaron Maddox, owner of Snowy Range, said a combination of good snowmaking and strong December snowfall has helped the area open 28 of its 29 trails.
Yet in Casper, the lack of snow has had a trickle-down effect.
Bruce Lamberson, owner of Mountain Sports in Casper, noted that sales this year are down because of the poor winter.
“The last time it was close to this bad was 1983,” Lamberson said. “In 1983, Hogadon opened a couple weekends in March and a couple in April ... That was a devastating year for us. I remember.”
Snowmobiling is also off to a slow start. Many of the state’s snowmobiling clubs generally have their first rides to clear trails in November. That didn’t happen in many parts of Wyoming this year, said Chris McNeil, Wyoming State Trails Safety and Education Coordinator and avid snowmobiler in his own right.
That, too, has a cost. Out-of-state snowmobilers contribute $41.3 million to the Wyoming economy, spending money on items like equipment, lodging, gas and food, according to a recent study by The University of Wyoming Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. With little snow on the ground around the Christmas season, many out-of-state riders likely stayed home, McNeil said.
“It slows things down in terms of snow economics, in terms of lodges, traveling,” he said.
A tale of two slopes
Where a lack of snow has been a drag in central Wyoming, heavy snow has helped spur a record year in the western part of the state.
In the Tetons, snow fell 25 days in December and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort accumulated more than 16 feet of snow on the month. The resort recorded its busiest holiday in its history, said Director of Communications Anne Coleman.
Part of the increase is attributed to an increase in the number of direct flights serving the Jackson airport this year, Coleman said. The airport added direct flights to San Francisco, Minneapolis and Newark, raising the total number of direct flights to nine.
Increased emphasis on social media, enabling the resort to provide potential customers with up-to-the-minute reports on mountain conditions, has also helped attract more people, Coleman said.
Yet there is no substitute for the snow to spur customers to the mountain, Coleman said.
“We see our skier days fluctuate with our snow conditions,” she said.
The northwest is the engine of the state’s ski economy, as the home of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Grand Targhee and Snow King. The solid start to the ski season there has meant that money spent on food and accommodations are above last year’s levels, said Diane Shober, director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism.
“We always say snow on the ground is money in our pocket,” Shober said.
While other parts of the state have made progress in attracting out-of-state winter visitors in recent years, they are not the large draws that the Jackson area businesses are, she said. But the lack of snow in eastern Wyoming still presents problems to the tourism industry.
About 80 percent of Wyoming’s tourists visit during the warmer months, Shober said. Snow serves as important source of moisture for Wyoming’s reservoirs and rivers, greens its landscape and helps prevent forest fires. A lack of snow in the winter threatens much of the state’s warm weather recreation, like hiking and camping.
“Snowpack really affects the bigger, broader industry in the summer,” Shober said.
Reason to hope
In the western mountains, snowpack levels are at 90 to nearly 100 percent of their 30-year averages, said Chris Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. In the Big Horn Basin and the Black Hills they range from 70 to 80 percent. But in the Laramie, Snowy and Sierra Madre ranges in southeastern Wyoming those levels are at 60 to 70 percent, Jones said.
Current 90-day predictions show weather patterns remaining consistent for Wyoming, Jones said, though he noted that present water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean make it difficult to predict what the coming months will bring.
There is some reason to expect that the weather will change, Jones said. The state historically receives much of its snowfall in March and April, he said. Late winter, early spring snow could dramatically change snowpack levels, he said.
And that has snow lovers in southeastern Wyoming hoping.
“For Hogadon it’s a little too early to tell,” said Wyttenback, the leisure services director. “We definitely still have time to have a great season.”
Back on top of Casper Mountain, Jim Miller wasn’t waiting for any snow. With the ski season well under way, he can’t afford to.
“We could sit around at the house and wish for snow, but that wouldn’t do any good,” Miller said, as he shoveled snow onto the trail at the Natrona County Trails Center. “We’ve got a race Friday night. It will go on.”