Blacktail and Turner Gearing up for Ski Season

Both ski areas expect to open in December

By Clare Menzel
A skier enjoys fresh powder on opening day at Blacktail Mountain Ski Area. Beacon File Photo

Neither Blacktail nor Turner Mountain Ski Areas have an opening date set for the 2015-2016 season, but both mountains hope enough snow will fall in order to open during the first weeks of December. Blacktail, which overlooks Flathead Lake, began its 2014-2015 season on Dec. 22, and Turner, which is north of Libby, opened last year on Dec. 29.

But of more interest than opening day may be closing day. Ski resort management, as well as skiers and snowboarders, hope it’s a long way off. Last season’s persistent warm temperatures, light snowfall, and low snowpack forced both ski areas to call the season early.

While Blacktail was able to keep its lifts spinning until March 28, Turner took on Jan. 31 what Kootenai Winter Sports Board Director Bruce Zwang expected to be a hiatus, but the mountain never saw the snowfall it needed to reopen. Both ski areas run without snowmaking, and depend entirely on natural snow.

It’s hard to resist the temptation of playing the snow guessing game during the leadup to ski season – especially this fall, amid talk of a strong El Niño, which is a prolonged warming in the Pacific Ocean’s surface temperature that can influence the climate across the globe and in the Northern Rockies. El Niño winters here have historically been characterized by warmer temperatures and below-average snowpack.

Because El Niño describes a broad change in weather trends over a long period and does not predict day-to-day conditions, skiers will still likely see heavy snow events this winter. If not positive, Zwang remains realistic about the upcoming season.

“We can’t change the weather, you get what you get,” he said. “We’re hoping for the best and planning for the worst, getting all the runs groomed and cleaned up so we can run with a little less snow.”

Zwang just hopes that Turner, which is one of a few ski areas in the United States to offer a family season pass, will open in time to welcome schoolchildren on their winter holiday break.

Steve Spencer, Blacktail’s general manager, said that their snowfall seems to be keeping with past years’ trends. According to Spencer, the ski area had 100 percent of the designated trails packed down by groomers on Nov. 13, though some snow melted in the following days. Still, packing the snow freezes the ground underneath, and Spencer expects the accumulation from the arctic front that rolled through the Flathead on Nov. 24 to stick.

Though Spencer reported that season pass sales are currently down from previous years, he said he anticipates this number will rise as snow begins to fall more regularly.

“If you talk to the scientists, they’re full of gloom and doom,” said Spencer. “Then the Farmer’s Almanac says the other thing, so who do you believe? It’s all speculation … We had some of the better snow in the northwest [last year], even though it was a lower snow year.”

Pray for snow or be content to let it fall as it may, but ski season is almost here in Lakeside and Libby, and there’s still no saying it won’t be one for the books.

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