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Warmer temperatures are delaying the start of ski seasons

Sleeping Giant webcam at the lodge.
Sleeping Giant ski area
Sleeping Giant's webcam at the lodge.

Thanksgiving is just around the corner and usually, that means the start of downhill ski season. But in many places such as Sleeping Giant, there isn't enough snow on the ground. The ski area is west of Cody, just outside the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

"If you're looking up from the lodge, the Big Horn lift goes to the top," Nick Piazza, the owner of Sleeping Giant, said. "And right at the top of the Big Horn lift, which is our shorter lift, that's kind of the start of the snow line for our mountain. So right at about the top of that lift, we have about three inches of cover going up to the top of the mountain, but our lower part of the mountain is still pretty grassy."

Even with the lack of snow, Piazza is hopeful that they will open on December 4 as planned.

"Luckily, colder temperatures are coming our way. So we're going to start actively making snow this week," he said.

Most ski areas rely on snowmakers to add extra coverage on runs when the snowpack is weak. But there's a catch 22. In order for snowmakers to work, they need temperatures in the low to mid-20s. So Piazza is hopeful this next week will stay cold enough to make that snow.

"Once we get the ground cooled down, we're able to basically build a solid base and then catch more or less every flake as it falls," said Piazza.

But snowmaking is an expensive solution. Luckily, Piazza is an investment banker who can more easily finance activities at the mountain. Meanwhile, the Hogadon Basin Ski Area in Casper is a different story. It's funded with some assistance from the city.

"Sixty percent of what Hogan operates off is paid for with lift tickets and passes. The other 40 percent is subsidized by the General Fund of our tax dollars," said Beth Andress, the communication and marketing director for the city of Casper.

Andress said if there's an increase in operational costs like using snowmakers more often, the fate of the mountain will depend on how much money the city and taxpayers are willing to pay for it. And most importantly, how much people are willing to pay to ski.

"We wouldn't be looking at it from a business standpoint. However, any increase in operational costs would be something that, [the city] council would really look at and decide if it was worth doing to provide that low-cost recreational opportunity to our residents," said Andress.

The underlying problem is warmer temperatures. For example, in Cody in the 1980s during the winter it averaged 29 degrees and now it's 30 degrees. All of this is causing ski seasons to start later and run shorter. Emily Wilkins is the lead author on a new study that looked at how Utah ski resorts are adapting to warmer temperatures. She said there are a lot of concerns.

"So as it gets warmer, we might have a shrinking season length [when] skiing is possible. And this is particularly important at the beginning of the season," said Wilkins. "So if the opening date has to shift later that could be a problem because a lot of people are used to skiing over the holiday period of Christmas, New Years, sometimes Thanksgiving in different locations."

Delays are already occurring. For instance, Grand Targhee just outside of Jackson delayed its November start date indefinitely. Hogadon hopes to open in early December if it has enough snow. For Sleeping Giant's Nick Piazza, it doesn't really matter to him when the season starts.

"It might be that we're opening later and closing later. In general, we're still able to maintain that kind of four to five months of winter activity," said Piazza.

One idea might be for ski areas to change their schedule. Meteorologists point out that ski areas like Sleeping Giant and Hogadon sit on the eastern side of the Continental Divide that traditionally get dumped with snow during the months closer to spring. Meanwhile, resorts on the western side of the Continental Divide like Grand Targhee might feel the impact a little more.

But for Piazza it's a waiting game until there is enough snow to open.

"I'm still hoping that that's going to be possible. But I think you know where we're at right now. It might be more likely that we open closer to say [December] 15th or the 17th. But you know, fingers crossed," he said.

So far the only resorts that have opened in the Mountain West are in Colorado. The rest are also crossing their fingers for a winter storm.

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