Ski area opening in doubt

Lack of snow may force officials to delay first day

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— Officials of the Steamboat Ski Area acknowledged Tuesday the resort's scheduled opening date of Nov. 21 is in jeopardy because of a lack of snow.

The National Weather Service in Grand Junction offered hope that winter weather could arrive next week, but the ski area can't afford to wait much longer.

"We'll probably watch the weather this week and see how much this next storm system does for us, then make a decision on Friday," ski area spokesman Mike Lane said.

Steamboat received 4 inches of snow at mid-mountain last week, and there is still a dusting of snow beginning midway up runs such as Tornado and Twister above 9,000 feet. However, very little natural snow remains at the top of the Silver Bullet Gondola.

Overnight temperatures have not been cold enough for optimal snowmaking conditions. Daytime highs have been in the upper 50s and low 60s, eroding the small piles of snow crews have been able to build on Headwall and north-facing Vagabond, the traditional route down the mountain on most opening days.

Meteorologist Jeff Colton of the National Weather Service said he's tracking a significant storm in the Pacific Ocean that he believes has a chance to bring snow and a normal winter weather pattern with it on Thanksgiving Day.

Colton said the entire western United States has been dry this fall because of the influence of a large ridge of high pressure. The subtropical jet stream, which often brings moisture to the region, is too far south to influence the weather in Northwest Colorado. And the polar jet stream is still far to the north, he added.

Colton offered little hope that a storm that brought snow to the Sierras of California this week will result in significant precipitation in the Colorado mountains.

"Right now, the storm is in southwestern Utah and the forecast is that it will track through southern New Mexico during the next 18 to 24 hours. That will drag most of the cold air with it," Colton said.

Colton sees signs the airflow aloft will shift to a more "zonal pattern" (west to east) next week. That could bust up the high-pressure system and allow the northern jet stream to descend.

"I think several weather systems will try ripping across the west next week," Colton said. "There's one storm with cold temperatures aloft that could arrive on Thanksgiving. That's the storm we're keying on."

Colton is still forecasting normal winter precipitation in Colorado this year.

Steamboat enjoyed abundant early snow last November (33 inches at mid-mountain and 44 inches at the summit), allowing it to open four days ahead of its scheduled date.

Lane pointed out that November 1999 was more like this November, with very little natural snow on the ground by opening day. However, temperatures were colder in 1999, allowing Steamboat to make enough snow to open limited terrain on South Face by Nov. 20. Within four days, a snowstorm dumped 2 feet of snow at mid-mountain.

Vail Associates, 100 miles to the south, had mixed news about resort openings Tuesday. Keystone, owned by Vail Associates, has been open since Oct. 26. And Vail announced Breckenridge will open as scheduled on Friday. However, Vail and Beaver Creek will delay their openings until sometime next week.

Kristin Rust, director of communications for Colorado Ski Country USA, pointed out Thanksgiving is early this year and that can affect public perception of the ski season launch. Loveland, Keystone and Copper Mountain are all open already.

"It's important to point out that with four resorts open right now, Colorado is dominant in the early season," Rust said. "To my knowledge, the rest of the nation only has four resorts open."

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