Resort looks to spring skiing after cold forces closures

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A skier sprays powder on Ed's Run on Sunday at Whitefish Mountain Resort. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

Whitefish Mountain Resort is hoping for a big March after a cold February forced a handful of upper mountain closures.

Last month the resort closed the upper mountain, which includes Chairs 1, 5, 7 and the Summit House, a total of five times due to extreme wind chill temperatures that at times hovered around minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit at the summit. The resort also closed the upper mountain on March 2 for a total of six closures this season.

Whitefish dropped to minus 22 degrees in early March, and last month was the second coldest on record in Kalispell, with an average temperature of 12.6 degrees.

Whitefish Mountain Resort spokesperson Riley Polumbus said this was the coldest February for the ski resort since it opened in 1947.

“In a typical season, maybe once we’ll close the upper mountain because of weather or cold,” Polumbus said. “It’s just an unusual circumstance. It’s not something we like to do.”

Polumbus said the closures were hard on the resort, but luckily they were heading into February with good visitation numbers that helped soften the blow.

“Obviously it’s a hit. The Summit House is closed, so there’s no one getting revenue from that. We do reduce our ticket price, so we lose a little bit there. Obviously if people think it’s too cold and there’s not access to the top of the mountain, they won’t go. But the thing is, we can always make [those numbers] up,” she said. “We were already going into February with some pretty good numbers, because that first weekend in January was a bonus weekend from the holiday period because a lot of kids had that off, so a lot of families were still on vacation and we still had a lot of people here in town.”

Polumbus noted holidays on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as well as President’s Day also helped boost visitation numbers.

Closing the resort is a tough call to make, she said, and usually comes down to a variety of observations.

It’s generally one of the directors on duty — usually Director of Operations Chester Powell or CEO Dan Graves — who makes the decision on whether to close, but ski patrol observations and weather reports factor in as well.

“Certainly ski patrol also will be the ones that go out and check out the conditions. They’ll go up there early and judge from the way the wind is blowing, the direction it’s blowing from, how often it’s blowing. We do have the weather station up there but of course that only gives us data once per hour. So it could be blowing really hard at 8 a.m. but not so hard later, and vice versa. It’s a matter of gathering the data from somebody who’s actually up there on patrol and then getting it to one of our directors to make a decision,” she said.

While closures are disappointing to the resort and the skiers, the decision comes down to safety.

Earlier in the season, a mechanical issue caused Chair 5 to freeze in its tracks midway through the day, prompting a two-hour evacuation process with temperatures in the teens.

Polumbus looks at an unexpected situation like that and says the results could be much worse in extreme weather conditions.

“It’s a safety issue. The fact that if for some reason we had to shut down the lift — which obviously we hate to do but as we saw with the Chair 5 evacuation, stuff happens — we don’t want people hanging up there in those extreme temperatures. So we’ve got to think about that. It’s a little bit different when you can handle the cold, but you can go inside the Summit House or go home.”

“We have to think of the extreme situations under extreme conditions,” she added.

The resort did have some positives last month.

The snowfall total of 65 inches beat the 10-year average of 59 inches for the month, and was just 5 inches short of the five-year average of 70 inches — which includes two 400-plus-inch seasons.

The mountain also saw a couple of great powder days, including Feb. 23, where skiers enjoyed an overnight snowfall total of 12 inches and a continual dusting of new snow throughout the day.

Polumbus also said retail at the resort did great despite the closures, and reservations on the mountain took a minimal hit due to the weather.

“I think that’s the beauty of economics. When one thing hurts, another thing prospers because people find a way to spend their money, and certainly in the cold you go and pick up an extra hat or a buff or face mask. So our retail definitely saw an increase even though our Summit House was closed,” she said.

The mountain also discounted tickets for the lower mountain on days when the summit was closed.

“We still have great terrain. I think we take for granted how much good terrain their is in the Chair 2 and Chair 3 area, so I think we at least can get some stuff flowing and people up here,” Polumbus said.

As spring starts and the resort hits its last month, Polumbus said she’s hoping things will pick up and the season will end on a high note.

The mountain has a lineup of events for the next few weeks, including the 20th annual Nate Chute Banked Slalom and Boardercross races this weekend, the Dummy Derby, the Brewfest and the Pond Skim.

A few more powder days wouldn’t hurt either, Polumbus said.

“March is similar to February in terms of snowfall historically, so if we could have the snowfall without having the cold, that’d be awesome,” she said. “I’m trying to stay positive. I’m a skier too, and I want to get my vertical and have fun. I could use another couple powder days, so I’m holding out.”

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