Experienced skiers and riders know that the early season – especially in New England – is often a contradiction, a time when our hopes and expectations crash head-on into reality. In other words, enthusiasm may be at all-time high around the November and December holidays, but snowpack generally is not.
Prognostications from the Old Farmer’s Almanac, AccuWeather, NOAA, and even the uber-optimistic ski freak living across town have fueled our anticipation for months, but it all gets thrown out the window when we make our way to the lift line for those early-season runs. The only thing that matters in these moments is the reality we feel beneath our skis that day.
Sometimes, we connect on a home run in November but more often we are playing small ball, scratching out infield hits in December simply to keep the game rolling forward into January. How we approach the inconsistency of early-season conditions is important for a variety of reasons, mainly to keep us safe so we can enjoy those prime days that await in February and March.
NESJ caught up with Vail Resorts’ Karen Wagner, ski patrol director at Stowe Mountain Resort, and Nate Jones, ski patrol director at Attitash Mountain Resort, to get some of their thoughts about making the most of the early season.
Temper expectations: New England snowfalls have been trending later to start and later to finish, making the holidays a roll of the dice. Even with the best snowmaking systems at-the-ready, resorts are often left helpless to operate them because temperatures are so inconsistent.
“Early-season weather is capricious,” Wagner said. “I’ve seen plenty of 10-inch snowstorms, followed closely by 45-degree stretches of sunny days. In recent years, temperatures are trending higher in October and early November, making snowmaking preparations more difficult.”
Compound less snow with more skier visits, and the holidays can turn into an exercise in patience. Jones said he’d like to flip the holidays toward the end of the season rather than at the start so people could have time to ski when conditions are primo. “During the December holidays, it has only been winter for five days!” he said. “We have a lot of skier visits on limited open terrain with mostly man-made snow that was entirely dependent on the November and early-December weather patterns.”
All about that base: Sure, you might wake up to 10 inches of snow on the hood of your car, but looks can be deceiving. This is especially important in resort glades and sidecountry woods.
“Big early-season snow can be really problematic,” Wagner said. “Without a solid base, this light snow hides deadfall, rocks, and other hazards that lurk just under the surface in gladed terrain. It’s a really dangerous time to be in the woods, and we encourage skiers and riders to stay on open trails after these autumn storms.”
Wagner said it takes multiple weather cycles, where snow is allowed to compress and cover hazards, before a reliable base forms in the woods. “We don’t start to venture in to assess woods conditions until we have a significant buildup of snow (50 inches is regarded as a minimum), with a good base underneath. Once the woods are ready to ski, best practice dictates that glade skiing is done in groups of no less than three, and regular check-ins every 50 or so feet are recommended.”
Jones said just because it is white does not mean it is ready. He cautioned that natural hazards exist not only in the woods but on other closed trails as well. “They are closed because of these hazards that exist, and we will not open them until that solid base exists.”
Get into tune: The early season is the perfect time to dial in your equipment. “Pre-season equipment maintenance – checking screws, general condition, making sure that bindings are releasing according to manufacturers’ specifications – is really important so that skiers and riders are setting themselves up for a safe season,” Wagner said. “A tune is also beneficial because early-season conditions often include patches of frozen granular and hard-pack.”
By the way, it’s not just equipment. It’s your body, too. “We all finished the last season with strong legs and honed skiing skills,” Jones said. “In the early season, we are out of shape and out of touch with our skills. Well-tuned equipment early-season can help bridge this gap and keep you safe and skiing all winter.”
Groom your decision-making: Our experts tell us that the early season is a good time to check your ego at the door by bypassing natural terrain when prudent and instead, embracing trails that get a lot of snowmaking and grooming.
“There may be a more direct way to get where you are going, or maybe a more challenging way that may be more fun,” Jones said, “but deciding to take the groomed snowmaking trail is much more advisable.”
These are decisions that can pay off down the road.
“On steep, narrow trails, and in the bumps and in the woods, you have to have the ability to make good, tight turns and to exercise speed control,” Wagner said. “Practicing these things on groomed terrain during the start of the season can help prepare one for the days when we are wide open.”