Traverse City News and Events

Snow, Freeze, Thaw, Melt: How Local Ski Resorts Navigate Big Weather Fluctuations

By Craig Manning | Nov. 27, 2022

Seven days ago, northern Michigan was blanketed in a foot or more of snow, the result of a blizzard that raged for three days straight. If you stepped outside yesterday, though, you experienced sunshine, temperatures in the 50s, and almost no trace of last week’s snowfall. It’s been a whirlwind week of freeze-thaw weather – temperamental even by northern Michigan’s famously up-and-down fluctuations – but local ski resorts like Crystal Mountain and Shanty Creek are undaunted. For those establishments, last week’s snowstorm meant the start of the 2022-23 ski season, regardless of what’s transpired since. The Ticker touched base with three area ski establishments – Crystal, Shanty, and Mt. Holiday – to find out how they’re navigating winter’s false start and what the rest of the season will hold. 

“Getting open by Thanksgiving”: That’s the first big goal that both Crystal Mountain and Shanty Creek carry into any new ski season. This year, both resorts got their wish, officially opening their slopes on Black Friday. They weren’t the only northern Michigan ski destinations to fire up the chairlifts this week: Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands were both up and running on November 23, Nub’s Nob kicked things off on Thanksgiving Day, and Caberfae Peaks joined Crystal and Shanty with a Friday opening.

According to Brittney Buti, manager of public relations for Crystal Mountain, “it totally depends on Mother Nature” whether or not local ski resorts can indeed open by Thanksgiving weekend. “This year, she was good to us,” Buti says. Last year? Not so much. “In 2021, we opened December 10 with half as many runs as we are anticipating opening up with this season.” That means Crystal Mountain is already 15 days ahead of where it was last season. 2022 still doesn’t break the record for the resort’s earliest ski season start, though, which Buti says happened in 2019 when the slopes opened on November 15.

The early opening dates are all thanks to last weekend’s massive snowfall, which smashed seasonal precedent for northern Michigan. According to the National Weather Service, Traverse City has already had 20.9 inches of snowfall this season, compared to a season-to-date norm of just 3.8 inches. Even areas that more commonly see big early snows are ahead of the curve: Take Gaylord, which has tracked 26.3 inches of snow so far, compared to a season-to-date average of 15.6 inches.

That snowfall, combined with chilly temperatures, gave ski resorts a big opening not only to accumulate natural flakes on their slopes, but also to fire up their snow guns and supplement with manmade snow. In fact, according to Lindsey Southwell, director of marketing for Shanty Creek, conditions that are optimal for making snow are actually far more essential to a ski resort than substantial natural snowfall.

“A foot of natural snow typically condenses to 1-2 inches because of the amount of air in it,” Southwell explains. “So, even with 36 inches of of snowfall so far this season, when it compresses, it amounts to less than six inches of base, which is not enough to ski on. For us – and really all ski resorts – it’s much more important to have consistent conditions conducive to snowmaking, since manmade snow is much more efficient than natural snowfall – it’s already condensed – and allows us to grow our base quickly.”

Southwell tells The Ticker prime snowmaking conditions “are calculated by using a combination of temperature and humidity, otherwise known as wet bulb temperature.” In general, snowmaking is possible so long as temperatures are under 28 degrees and humidity levels are low. The lower the temperature and humidity, the better for snowmaking. “So, when it’s in the teens or below – like this past weekend – that’s when our snowmaking is at its best,” Southwell says.

But by the time Shanty Creek and Crystal Mountain opened onFriday, temps were hovering in the mid-40s, with humidity around 60-70 percent. Those conditions beg the question: How long can a ski resort maintain a skiable base of snow with sunshine and above-freezing temps melting the snow – especially without overnight conditions that are truly ideal for snowmaking?

According to Southwell, the answer depends on the configuration of the snow. Manmade snow tends to accumulate near the snow guns in piles that Southwell says snowmakers like to call “whales,” because the humps “look like whales skimming the surface of water.” Just like piles of snow on the sides of roads or near parking lots tend to stick around longest in the spring, whales on ski slopes are effectively melt-resistant. “Since snow is a natural insulator, when we keep the snow in whale form, it conserves itself and reduces the amount of loss during a warm-up,” Southwell continues. “Very little snow is lost when kept in the piles. Conversely, when the snow is spread out, it reduces the surface area and erodes at a much quicker pace. So, we keep our snow in whale form until we’re ready to open, and it’s typically pushed out by our groomers the evening before opening to create the best base possible for our skiers.”

So, there you have it: It’s thanks to robust snowmaking infrastructure and strategic snow piling that northern Michigan ski resorts were able to open this week in spite of heatwaves. Not that every ski destination in the area is open already, though. Traverse City’s Mt. Holiday, for instance, took advantage of last weekend’s snowfall, cold temps, and low humidity to start building its snow base too. But according to Mt. Holiday Executive Director Nate Noyes, the ski hill is in no hurry to open just yet. Where Shanty and Crystal aim to open by Thanksgiving, Noyes says Mt. Holiday typically aims to get open in mid-December, “as soon as the local schools let out for holiday break.”

Despite the later opening date, Noyes says Mt. Holiday's preparations are already in full swing. This weekend is its busiest time for selling season tickets, thanks to its annual four-day Black Friday season pass sale – which runs through Monday. In addition, several major infrastructure improvements are in place across the slopes. Most notably, Noyes says, is the reopening of Mt. Holiday’s yellow chairlift, which hasn’t operated in three years.

“There was an issue with the auxiliary motor and we had to change it out,” Noyes explains, noting that, because the chairlift is an older piece of equipment, finding replacement components for broken or worn-out parts can be extremely challenging. “Luckily, we were finally able to get our hands on the appropriate part. So, we finally have that chairlift up and inspected, and we plan on using it this year. And that’s big news, because the extra lift allows everybody to spread out around our ski hill. It’ll mean more room or everyone on the slopes.”

Photo courtesy of Crystal Mountain

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