Michigan ski slopes back on the powder as weather cools

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Mark Tibbitts hadn't checked the weather report, but he knew how much rain had fallen on his ski slopes:

"More than I needed."

That was Sunday into Monday, two dozen intermittent hours of washing away valuable snow. A few days earlier, golfers were frolicking in 60-degree temperatures. None of that was good for Mt. Holly Ski and Snowboard Resort, but then Tuesday came along with 1-3 inches of snow in Metro Detroit. There was also a whomping two-day aggregation up north, and with it, a thick base coat of optimism in the ski world.

Instructor Bill Wirsing, left, teaches Varun Srini-Vasan, 21, how to ski during his $65  per hour lesson at Mt. Holly Ski and Snowboard Resort.

For now.

Heading into this not-quite-freezing New Year's Day, the lifts are running at nearly every place that owns them. But it's been a perplexing winter in the ski industry, with a forecast of more executives like Tibbitts smacking themselves in the forehead and wondering why they ever went into business with Mother Nature.

"It's kind of like farming," said Tibbitts, 66. "There's always times like this in a Michigan winter. Even after as many years as I've been doing it, you still don't get used to it."

Mt. Holly closed Monday after its 18- to 28-inch base was washed back to 12-24 inches. High winds helped evaporate some of the water, Tibbitts said, groomers moved the existing snow to cover bare spots, and the resort was back in business Tuesday as two inches of overnight fluff provided a bonus for early customers.

Alpine Valley in White Lake and Pine Knob in Clarkston were also open. Mt. Brighton's website advised that it was "closed due to inclement weather," which sounds like irony but is actually just a reality of a perilous trade.

One machine grooms the slopes while another makes snow at Treetops Resort in Gaylord.

Ski executives will tell you they depend on snow on the mountains but also snow in backyards. Larger resorts might have millions of dollars invested in snowmaking machines, but they're useless unless the weather is no more than 28 degrees with low humidity.

Otherwise, explained Kevin McKinley of Treetops Resort in Gaylord, the fresh manmade snow just melts.

Treetops opened the first weekend in December, three weeks after more northerly resorts like Crystal Mountain and Boyne Mountain. McKinley, the director of golf and ski operations, said he had to take an educated gamble after a one-day storm and some proper snowmaking conditions in mid-November — and he made the right bet.

"We could have allowed ourselves to open," he said, but warmer weather was looming.

He held off, preserving the manmade snow in piles where it lasts longer, then dispersed it for the December debut.

General manager Maerk Tibbitts stands in front of lift 3 at Mt. Holly Ski and Snowboard Resort in Holly. "It's kind of like farming," he said, with the ski business subject to the whims of Mother Nature.

"If we'd spread it out earlier, we might have lost it," he said, which would have been devastating.

Treetops depends on Christmas through New Year's; that stretch, combined with the Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidents' Day weekends, accounts for half its winter revenue.

Saturday was fantastic, McKinley said, but then came the soggy Sunday. While some visitors skied anyway, Treetops steered others toward tubing or a dogsled ride.

"All the ski areas try to be prepared for whatever's going to be thrown at them," he said.

That often means making snow even when fresh snow is underfoot because a foot of the real stuff packs down to only an inch or two beneath the weight of a grooming machine. Manmade snow is "glorified ice, if you will," and a foot of it at Treetops leaves six or seven inches for tilling into a good ski and snowboard surface.

Real snow might be as valuable for gazing at as it is for gliding through.

Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville has 152 snowmaking machines. Spokeswoman Sammie Lukaskiewicz said that in proper conditions, they can coat the entire resort with a foot of snow in 45 hours and retain every inch.

"On the flip side," she said, "when people look out in the backyard and see the snow has melted, they assume we don't have any, either."

Lukaskiewicz used to work for Michigan International Speedway, "where I was obsessed with summer weather." Tuesday, she was glorying in a two-day snowfall of seven inches, and pointing out that you can see the impact for yourself on Crystal's webcam.

"It's about telling the story," McKinley said. "That's why snow cams and mountain cams are so popular."

At Nichols Ski and Snowboard in Dearborn, the third-generation proprietor said "even two inches on the ground makes a big difference for us."

"We have our dedicated skiers who go out and find snow," said Tom Nichols, whose shop began 65 years ago as an afterthought at his grandfather's hardware store. "The average skier, with no snow in the yard, doesn't think about it."

Dogsled rides are particularly popular at Treetops Resort in Gaylord when conditions are bleak for skiing and snowboarding.

The thought had been properly planted Tuesday at Mt. Holly, where video cameras showed dozens of skiers and boarders on the slopes and the weather report suggested more snow was pending for early evening.

"You'd love that smooth, perfect year," Tibbitts said, "where it's winter from the time it starts until it ends.

"Unfortunately," he conceded, "that almost never happens," and it won't in the New Year.

The Metro Detroit forecast for Wednesday calls for a ski-friendly high of 35 degrees. Thursday, it elevates to 45. For Friday, it's 50 degrees — with rain.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn