Low moisture, warm temps put Montana ski hills behind the powder curve

Most ski areas around Montana have finally opened, but it’s not time to stop snow dancing yet.

Even though Missoulians celebrated this weekend’s 1 to 2 inches of snow that decked the town for the holidays, the past month hasn’t brought much precipitation, causing many ski areas to open later than normal.

December isn’t predicted to have lower-than-normal precipitation, and the forecast for the first quarter of 2020 suggests a slightly wetter-than-normal trend. However, December’s temperatures were also forecast to be unseasonably warm nationwide, except Nevada.

As of last week, the National Drought Mitigation Center designated areas of Montana just west of Missoula as abnormally dry.

So even though Thanksgiving is normally the goal for opening weekend, the Facebook pages of nearby ski areas filled with apologies for not being open.

Both Discovery Basin and Lost Trail Powder Mountain encouraged their patrons in early December to “keep up the snow dances.”

Discovery Basin opened on Dec. 7 but had only enough snow to open the Jubilee chairlift leading to the easier runs. With just 2 feet of snow at the summit, skiers are warned to be wary of thin cover.

Discovery president Ciche Pitcher said he prefers to be open for Thanksgiving but knows better than to bank on it, even after a promising October.

“In general, every two out of five years, we’ll miss our Thanksgiving opening. We made it the past two years, so missing this one, I was kind of expecting it,” Pitcher said. “I don’t think it’s concerning. It’s part of our business that some years are a little more difficult to get going.”

Lost Trail had to wait even longer, opening on Friday the 13th, and then opened only two chairlifts leading to the easier terrain on the south end of the area. Lost Trail also has only 2 feet of snow at the summit. As a result, they charged only $35 a day this past weekend, rather than the usual $49.

Snowbowl had already set Dec. 7 as opening weekend but was one of the last areas to open, finally allowing eager skiers to ride the chairlift at noon on Sunday. On Facebook, the management cheered the 3 to 6 inches the area received on Friday night, telling patrons they were making snow and could open once they got a little more. They received about 16 inches over the weekend.

Even so, most of the snow was at the top of the mountain, and Snowbowl’s management suggested that only experienced skiers give it a try. They offered reduced prices – $30 for the half day.

Skier Brook Lenox didn’t mind, posting on Facebook that there was “lots of great powder but not a lot of base.”

Pitcher said the local areas are hoping the next big storm brings wet, heavy snow rather than the champagne powder that skiers love. A good 3 to 5 inches of wet snow would lay down a decent base and help areas open a few more runs and chairlifts, Pitcher said.

With its high elevation, Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation Area on the Montana-Idaho border can be one of the first to open, thanks to moisture from the Pacific. But not this year.

Last Monday, the managers were hoping the prediction for midweek snow would hold.

“We’re calling out Old Man Winter and forcing him to deliver the goods. We’re done fooling around. It’s time to get this party started,” employees posted on the Lookout Facebook page.

Wednesday and Thursday brought enough snow that Lookout finally opened on Saturday, debuting its new Quad chairlift. But with just 20 inches of snow at the summit, only half the runs are open and skiers are warned to avoid thin spots and obstacles.

Ski areas on the east side of the Continental Divide this year have done better as more cold and snow has streamed down the divide from Canada or swirled up from Colorado.

Leading the snowpack, Red Lodge Mountain opened in time for Thanksgiving and now has received a total of 143 inches of snow. Big Sky Ski Resort followed a week later.

Pitcher talked to the owner of Red Lodge Mountain as that area was opening in November and was a little jealous to hear they already had 5 feet of snow.

“I’m kinda pessimistic about the snow we’re going to get just because it feels like everything’s been underwhelming, and we haven’t seen a good storm in a while,” Pitcher said. “But we could get one, and it’ll hit, and then we’ll be scrambling to catch up and to get everything opened. I’m hoping for that problem.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.