Wind Holds & Delays
This season has been a roller coaster of weather, with the December dry-spell, the wind-snow-warm-repeat cycle of January, and the blizzards of late February and March. Between February 24 and March 2 we saw 50″ of snow, 30″ in just 3 days- the 2nd biggest snow event on our mountain in at least 15 years. The winds in January came from the East and Southeast, the exact opposite direction that we tend to see winds from. So, during much of this season operations have been treated to a complete reversal in what is normal. As our mountain operations director has said several times: “unprecedented”. This is precisely why we could run only Windsor on some days, the lower mountain more often, and Ariel often delayed or closed.
Wind events can affect the mountain in many ways. The most predominant of these is swinging of the chairlifts. There are numerous videos that can be found online of chairs swinging in the breeze. It is extremely dangerous to operate in those conditions, especially when there is any potential chance of a chair hitting a tower. In addition, we must be very aware of conditions in which trees can come down, either into a trail, on a chairlift, or on a power line that supports the mountain. During the wind events in January we had numerous trees that did fall, many large ones that did fall in trails- thankfully our choices to not operate at those times prevented potential incidents. The unique topography of our mountain also makes it hard to predict wind from one side of the chair to another–calm winds at the base of Ariel may by 60+mph at the breakover and bullwheel.
Excessively heavy snows can also impede our operations and delay lifts. Multiple departments must coordinate- grooming, maintenance, operations, and patrol- to accomplish a series of related tasks across the mountain. Even one item that is challenged, such as a buried counterweight, can delay every other step in the process, and usually requires diverting resources to solve issues. It is common across the industry for ski areas to make delays or cancellations to accommodate for “digging out”. It is never our first choice, but sometimes necessary to open safely.
I keep a close connection with our guests and understand just how disappointing it is to drive up to the mountain and have expectations not met by reduced lift access or a shortened day. Safety will always be the very top priority for our staff and our guests. Here are a few tips for some help in planning trips to Mt. Ashland and some insight into our lift and mountain operations on these types of challenging weather days.
Weather forecasting continues to improve and be more accurate. It is a crucial tool, understanding it is never 100% accurate, that should be used for operating the ski area, but also for planning your time on the mountain.
If you see forecasted wind gusts from the SE or E in the 45+ mph range, you should anticipate possible wind holds on Sonnet, Comer, and Ariel chairs. Gusts in the 55+mph range from any direction you should expect some lifts to close and there is a very high probability for all lifts to be impacted. Anything above the 65+mph range and it’s virtually a guarantee that we will be closing all lifts. Windsor is our most wind-shielded chairlift and can operate in the most difficult conditions. However, it also provides no way back to the lodge for less experienced skiers- is is rare for us to operate Windsor without Comer also operating, and we will never do so at night.
Mt. Ashland’s natural snow patterns are typically no more than 8″ per day, and much of how our mountain operates is tailored to that. It is true we do receive much bigger snowfalls, and have the equipment and plans for handling those. As a smaller, community ski area our staff size is small in all departments, and getting open on the big powder days becomes an “all hands on deck” situation. And I do mean all-hands…. I myself was up shoveling out Ariel this morning with members of our ski patrol and lift operations. Yesterday, our mountain operations director was out working the maze at Ariel. The work opening up can only be done in the daylight, and although we get started as early as possible there is simply sometimes too much work to open safely, even when we apply every available person.
While this information provides some insight into how weather can affect our operations, please understand that every weather event is different and that there are an infinite number of variables. Mountain operations and I coordinate with our Lift Maintenance, Lift Operations, Terrain Park, and Ski Patrol department about daily lift and trail decisions.
We do have a dedicated weather page on our website. This is real-time data from a station located on the lodge. So, the weather at the base area, Windsor summit, and Ariel summit are all much different from what is reported on the website. Additionally, the NWS data on our website is from a site several miles from our mountain, and often differs significantly. We use these tools together, as well as simply traveling our mountain to see what it is really like outside.
There is an incredible amount of work that goes into ski area operating decisions. Often, things do change hourly and forecasts fall short. For example, today the forecast called for excessive winds and some light snow- our expectation was that Ariel would be in a hard hold all morning. However, the winds died quickly, we opened Ariel at 10:30am, and it snowed 6″+ by 3pm. We encourage you to keep an eye on the weather forecasts, the real-time data on our website, and our webcams to help you make an educated decision prior to your visit. We will give you real-time operation status on our website, but often things change quickly, especially in the morning when we’re making quick decisions.
My promise to you is that we will open every scheduled day, every chairlift that we can, on a speedy and safe basis. Our team works tirelessly to open in tough mountain conditions, and getting you on the chairs is our goal each day. Even so, Mother Nature is unpredictable!
~Andrew Gast, General Manager