Oregon skiers and snowboarders have something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving week - another early opening to the winter sports season, coupled with forecasts for another banner year on the slopes.
Timberline and Mount Hood Meadows in the northern part of the state opened Friday, and both reported busy weekends. Mount Bachelor has announced that it will begin daily operations Wednesday, and Hoodoo Ski Area and Willamette Pass Ski Area both had two feet of snow on the ground Monday and needed only a few more inches to allow them to open.
"We're still sitting here with our fingers crossed," Hoodoo general manager Matthew McFarland said Monday afternoon. With more snow forecast overnight, he said, "We'll make a final call tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon" regarding whether to open the day after Thanksgiving.
With a second straight "La Ni[+ or -]a" winter shaping up, however, ski area operators are anticipating above-average snowfall in the Cascade Mountains over the next five months.
In addition, La Ni[+ or -]as - created by cooling of the Pacific Ocean's equatorial waters - generally translate into colder temperatures and, thus, more of the fluffy powder snow favored by snow riders.
"Our operators are pretty bullish, given the long-term weather forecast for 'La Ni[+ or -]a' conditions," said Scott Kaden, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association (PNSAA), a trade group representing ski areas in six states.
Last winter's "La Ni[+ or -]a" was one of the strongest in 50 years. As a result, the powder piled up in the Cascades, helping set records for snow depth and skier visits at many resorts.
"It was our best season ever in terms of snowfall," said Andy Goggins, marketing and communications director for Mount Bachelor near Bend. "We broke our season snowfall record - 675 inches fell during our operating season."
In fact, "up off the Summit Chair, we have quite a few patches of snow that never melted" said Goggins, who points out that Mount Bachelor was one of several Northwest ski areas that opened for skiing on the Fourth of July.
Overall, last season's deep snowfall helped produce record skier numbers in Oregon, said PNSAA's Kaden. The association's 13 member ski areas in Oregon tallied a little more than 2 million visitors during the 2010-11 season, the highest number ever, he said.
The strong turnout helped spur investment in ski area amenities during the offseason - as well as some price increases for the upcoming winter.
Mount Bachelor, for example, raised its daily lift ticket prices by $3. The resort, which uses a sliding-scale that varies fees with expected weather conditions and the number of lifts open, will charge adults $73, $63 or $53 per day this season.
Willamette Pass Ski Area raised its adult lift ticket to $49, up from $45 last winter.
Hoodoo Ski Area stood pat on pricing. It's basic adult ticket remains $48 on "peak" days (holiday periods, generally) and $45 on other days.
Meanwhile, last year's financial results also "provided the necessary capital for ski areas to implement many improvements during the summer construction season," Kaden said.
In Oregon, the biggest single capital improvement during the offseason was installation of the new Stadium Express quad chairlift at Mount Hood Meadows. The lift is intended to improve access to the resort's northern terrain.
In the central Cascades, Mount Bachelor invested $3.5 million in a variety of improvement projects that include mechanical upgrades to its high-speed chairlifts, the addition of three new, state-of-the-art grooming machines and the purchase of a new fleet of Burton rental snowboards. The resort also made major improvements in food service areas at Pine Marten, Sunrise and West Village lodges.
Among them is the addition of an "umbrella bar," next to Sunrise Lodge. The circular structure, which can seat 60 people around a central bar, has removable glass walls and a retractable umbrella ceiling to allow an open-air experience on sunny days. With the umbrella open and the heaters turned on, it's secure from the weather outside.
Mount Bachelor also installed a solar panel array atop its Bend office and bus garage. The solar units will generate enough electricity to power the Carrousel beginner lift.
At Hoodoo Ski Area, McFarland said, "we have done a lot of grooming in the tree area so there will be more tree skiing available this year."
Hoodoo also replaced the drive system on one of its chairlifts and made other improvements designed to help the ski area operate more smoothly and efficiently, McFarland said.
Meanwhile, at Willamette Pass Ski Area, "We've just worked really hard to constantly update our services and our products," owner Tim Wiper said. "We haven't been able to do any new (capital) improvements per se - building more lifts and runs is just not on the immediate horizon.
"The real draw for us is our spectacular terrain," Wiper said. "At Willamette Pass, we're all about skiing...and it's really exciting for skiers that it looks like we're going to have a good La Ni[+ or -]a year, and get going soon."
Finally, however, skiers should remember that not all La Ni[+ or -]a winters are alike.
"Historically, the second of back-to-back La Ni[+ or -]a winters does not bring as much rain and mountain snow as the first," according to the seasonal climate forecast issued by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
The forecast - issued Oct. 20 - predicted weather would be "mild in November with significant mountain snow likely holding off until Thanksgiving." It then called for "an abrupt transition to 'quite stormy' weather in December" and snowpacks that are "above average by the end of January."
Last year, for all the good snow the La Ni[+ or -]a produced, there was a slow stretch in the middle of the season.
"We had an outstanding start to the year," PNSAA's Kaden said. "November and December were fantastic. Then we had a little hiccup in middle. We didn't have very much snow in January, and even the first 10 or 15 days of February, snow was sparse. Then we finished very, very strong in the latter part of February and March and April."