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Harsh winter means misery for many people but happiness for skiers

Skiers and snowboarders at Mammoth Mountain in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. California's Mammoth Mountain Ski Area officially opened Nov. 5, a week earlier than expected, due to recent storms bringing fresh snow to the region.
Mette Lampcov/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Skiers and snowboarders at Mammoth Mountain in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. California's Mammoth Mountain Ski Area officially opened Nov. 5, a week earlier than expected, due to recent storms bringing fresh snow to the region.

The U.S. has been blasted by an onslaught of storms this winter. What that means is a matter of perspective.

New York received a massive 6 feet of snow in November, a bomb cyclone canceled more than 5,300 flights nationwide the week before Christmas, and California is being hit by ongoing massive storms due to an atmospheric river. The Sierra Nevada mountains received 55 inches of snow during the December storms. The amount of water contained in that snow is 177 percent above regular snow levels, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

But while much of the U.S. has been struggling with the storms, skiers have been seeing things differently.

"This season started strong this year," says Kip Wanaselja from Santa Cruz, Calif., who regularly skis in the Lake Tahoe Area.

It didn't start as an epic season. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows the Sierra Mountains area received mostly average to below average snowfall in October and November.

"What we need is a storm this big every month until April, that would be a standout season," Wanaselja said.

Skiing conditions have been good across most of the rest of the country, too.

"Broadly across the U.S., we've been seeing normal to well-above normal snowfall," says Benjamin Hatchett, a research professor in atmospheric science at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev.

"New Mexico and far southern Colorado are really the only areas [experiencing below average amounts of snow]," Hatchett said. "Even Arizona has a great snowpack for this point in the year."

While skiers love big snowstorms, that doesn't necessarily mean ski resorts are thriving, says Adrienne Isaac, director of marketing and communications for the National Ski Areas Association.

"You can get a lot of snow that's good for your season, but if you get too much snow at once, it'll shut down operations," she said.

That happened at Heavenly Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe on New Year's Eve.

"You can also get heavy rain events, which make conditions too warm for ski resorts to make snow," Isaac said.

Heavy weather can make the roads into the ski resorts too dangerous to travel, but Issac said, "we're cautiously optimistic.

"There was strong pre-season interest," she said, "with a lot of season passes sold."

She says that season passes, which allow skiers to ride lifts all winter, are one of the primary ways ski areas make money, but that it may be too early to judge how the weather will impact ski areas this winter until after the season is over.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ivy Winfrey