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Local ski resorts usher in the winter season

A snowboarder carves down the Bootlegger trail at Bryce Resort on Dec. 13.
Randi B. Hagi
A snowboarder carves down the Bootlegger trail at Bryce Resort on Dec. 13.

Ski resorts in the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains are opening up for the winter season. Despite a warming climate, you can still ski the southeast, as WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[sounds of wind, snowboard carving downhill]

I hit the slopes at Bryce Resort in Shenandoah County last week, getting in a few laps down the freshly groomed Bootlegger and Red Eye trails. Bryce is a small, member-owned mountain that's open to the public, with eight runs and a terrain park. On the chairlift ride up the mountain, Marketing Director Andrew Devier-Scott talked to me about the start of ski season.

Andrew Devier-Scott is the marketing director at Bryce Resort.
Randi B. Hagi
Andrew Devier-Scott is the marketing director at Bryce Resort.

ANDREW DEVIER-SCOTT: November is when we start looking at weather, and trying to determine when we're going to be able to start making snow. You know, our snowmaking crews are prepping all the snowmaking system. They'll start laying out hoses, checking all the lines, all the snow guns, making sure everything's ready to go so that when we get that opportunity, we can quickly switch over and start making snow.

Snowmakers perch over the runs, looking like winter's magical boom mics, waiting for the nighttime temperatures that allow them to spout a pressurized water mist that freezes into man-made snow. Devier-Scott said they typically aim to open by Thanksgiving. This year, opening day was December 2nd.

DEVIER-SCOTT: Winters in the southeast can be tricky. [laughs] We work with what we get.

Massanutten Resort, in Rockingham County, just opened for daily operations on Friday, December 15th.

KENNY HESS: The 50-year average of opening date for us is somewhere around December 11th or 12th, so we were able to open for the weekend of December 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. … We're kind of right in that average window.

A ski instructor and student celebrate a
Randi B. Hagi
A ski instructor and student celebrate a successful run at Bryce Resort last week.

Kenny Hess is Massanutten's director of mountain sports and risk management. Almost all U.S. ski resorts use snowmakers in this day and age – approximately 88% of the 300-plus members of the National Ski Areas Association. The NSAA's director of marketing and communications, Adrienne Saia Isaac, told WMRA the ski areas that don't have any snowmaking are primarily small resorts in the Pacific Northwest.

In Virginia, where natural snowfall is inconsistent, the snowmakers literally make the season possible. Hess said the wet bulb temperature – which drops below normal air temperature as humidity drops – has to be below 28 degrees Fahrenheit for them to make snow.

HESS: The lower the wet bulb temperature, so, the lower the humidity, generally the better the snowmaking is. … The drier the air, it kind of evaporates some of the stuff that hasn't frozen, so it's just more efficient.

Hitting that sweet spot, or just freezing temperatures, period, is not a guarantee in Virginia, especially in the face of climate change. National Weather Service data show that the trend of average December temperatures in two climate areas – Rockingham County down to Roanoke, and the north end of the Shenandoah Valley over to NoVa – has risen 2.8 to 4 degrees per century since 1895.

A young snowboarder cuts heelside across a trail.
Randi B. Hagi
A young snowboarder cuts heelside across a trail.

Kevin Witt is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Baltimore/Washington office. He said that temperatures are expected to be slightly above average for the next two months or so, and precipitation a bit below average. But fear not! Between now and Christmas –

KEVIN WITT: You're probably looking at lows in the mid- to upper-20s, you know, barely climbing above freezing some time before lunchtime, so you're going to get that cold air in the morning to really make the snow.

Back at Bryce, I chatted with Zeynep Yardimci at the top of a run. She's skied since she was little, but had only been snowboarding for –

ZEYNEP YARDIMCI: Uh, like 20 minutes. [laughs]

HAGI: Oh, this is your first time ever!


HAGI: How's it going?

Easton Peterson, left, and Bill Nabers
Randi B. Hagi
Easton Peterson, left, and Bill Nabers serve on the ski patrol at Bryce.

YARDIMCI: Good! I kind of went down the bunny hill, so we'll see what happens here.

Bill Nabers, assistant ski patrol director, was out on the mountain running training exercises with Easton Peterson.

BILL NABERS: We're recertifying, because all of us each year have to be recertified to be able to handle a sled. Which means we have to know how to prepare the sled, how to get it to the scene, how to take a loaded person down – and I'm the dummy for that! They bring me down, so they don't want to mess me up! And then how to hook this attachment to it to bring it back up, because we have this device that allows us to bring it back up on the chairlift.

They're certified through the National Ski Patrol organization. Nabers said their training is similar to that of EMTs, minus the ambulance.

NABERS: The other part we do is safety. Like, coming up today, we were looking around – where do we need fences? Where do we need padding? Because that changes every day. Snow conditions can change, when they make snow it can change. … So we're the first ones on, the last ones off.

To those shredding the slopes this winter, may your tips never cross and your edges never catch.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.