What's the one thing any ski resort needs more than new high-speed lifts, organically grown cafeteria food, and radiant-heat sidewalks? Snow. And as every skier on the eastern seaboard well knows, we've had some awfully strange weather this season. Whether you blame global warming, El Niño, or Jack Frost, the problem is the same: not enough white stuff falling from the skies. "This has been as challenging a year as anyone can recall," says Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. To make matters worse, skiers have become less tolerant of mediocre conditions when natural snow is scant. "It's like the movies," says Riehle. "You can't go back to old technology. You've got to keep pace with expectations." Of the 24 northeastern resorts that participate in the National Ski Areas Association’s annual economic analysis of the industry, every single one makes snow, and some, like Okemo in Vermont, do it on nearly every single trail.
As of February 1, with two of the three big holiday ski breaks behind them, many of Vermont's ski areas had overshot their snowmaking fuel budgets for the first part of the season, Riehle says. Resorts made snow on days when they ordinarily wouldn't -- too humid, too warm, too windy -- only to watch it melt or blow away. What's more, newer energy-efficient snowmakers work only on colder, drier days, so the older energy-guzzling machines have been out on the slopes more than many operators -- and all those who favor energy conservation -- would like. For resort owners, that translates into whopping energy bills: Of the $35 million Vermont ski areas collectively spend on energy each year, about 80 percent goes to pumping water and air uphill to make snow. And consider this: Killington, Vermont's mega-resort, blasts more than 720,000 gallons of water an hour when snowmaking is running at full tilt. Combine that with poor snowmaking conditions and you're talking about a lot of energy use. It's a real catch-22 for resort owners who know that energy conservation is key to beating back their worst enemy: global warming.
-- Laura Wright