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It's baaack!

Storms deliver snow; early ski season openings set

If you haven't already, it's time to haul your ski or snowboard gear out of storage, dust it off, clean it up and get it tuned for the 2003-04 season.

Do it now because there's a very strong chance the season -- at least at some locations -- will begin sooner than Thanksgiving, like this Thursday, if weather patterns cooperate.

A posting last week on Mount Bachelor's website homepage noted optimistically: "The short-term weather forecast predicts enough snowfall for us to open on Friday, Nov. 21! If the storm comes through the lifts will operate..."

And if the lifts operate, skiers and snowboarders will come to the mountains, to renew that special bond between man and snow that they've come to know so well.

Last season was a down year for Pacific Northwest ski areas, which saw a 29.23 percent decline in skier/snowboarder visits (from 4,863,384 visitors in 2001-02 to 3,442,025 in '02-03, according to the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, a non-profit trade association that represents the interests of ski and snowboard facilities in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington).

The 2001-02 season was a record-breaker for the region as a whole and for most of the 33 Oregon, Washington and Idaho ski operations that reported skier visits. (A skier visit is defined by the industry as one person visiting a ski area for all or part of a day or night; snowboarder visits are included in skier visit tallies.)

Mount Hood Meadows attracted a best-ever 402,718 visitors in '01-02, compared to 280,579 last year -- which was even less than the resort drew in 1990-91.

Even the pinnacle of consistency, Central Oregon snow magnet Mount Bachelor, which averaged 569,462 visitors per year throughout the 1990s, has seen its gawdy numbers slip.

Bachelor, which has drawn more than 500,000 visitors just once in the last four seasons, recorded 465,589 visits last year -- its lowest total in the last 13 years.

Skier visits as a whole fell off 22.1 percent in Oregon in 2002-03 (from a single-season record 1,656,358 to 1,290,224). Only Mount Ashland in southern Oregon experienced an increase in attendance from (95,170 skier visits to 102,479).

Washington skier visits dropped 33.31 percent during the same period, from an all-time peak of 2,151,544 in 2001-02 to 1,434,954 last season.

Idaho skier visits, which more than doubled between 1990 and 2002, went backward 31.94 percent, from a high of 845,509 in '01-02 to five-year low of 575,462 in '02-03.

Scott Kaden, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, attributed the decline in skier visits, in part, to a lack of snow in November and December 2002, and the first half of January 2003.

"Pacific Northwest ski area operators rely almost 100 percent on natural snowfall," Kaden noted. "When the snow doesn't fall, we are impacted in a significant fashion."

The absence of snow at the beginning of a season, he continued, prevents ski areas from gathering the momentum they need to carry them through the winter. That's what occurred in 2002-03.

But that was then, this is now. News from the slopes this week has been nothing but good. The series of storms that have been passing over the Cascades have been making generous deposits in the snow bank.

South of the border, crews at Timberline (base: 30 inches as of Tuesday) are packing and grooming runs for a Thursday opening. Mount Bachelor is boasting a 27-inch base and intends to go ahead with its previously announced Friday start-up.

Meadows, with a base of 20 inches at its lodges and 25 inches on top, plans to begin operations as soon as possible.

According to meteorologist and's sultan of snow, Larry Schick, the long-range forecast is for "a normal winter as far as snowfall is concerned."

"Normal is good," Schick wrote in a recent Powder Alert newsletter. "That means starting about on time: near or just past Thanksgiving. Expect this winter to be a little warmer than normal, but not like last year...Should be a good one, with more powder days than last year."


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