After 'bomb cyclone,' Poconos skiing enjoys boost, at least for now

As Blue Mountain Resort in the heart of the Poconos has been approaching middle age, the recent mild winters have taken a toll.

But this season, the resort’s 40th anniversary, things are looking up: trails opened early, on Black Friday, and have been operating since to solid crowds, especially over the December holidays, with all 39 trails open.

“This winter has been really great for us,” said Melissa Yingling, a spokeswoman for Blue Mountain, originally named Little Gap Ski Area. “Especially after the last two years.”

If anything, resort operators say, it has been a bit too cold in the last week, shooing some skiers off the slopes.  But that’s still better than the times when it was too warm even to make snow. The last two balmy seasons have been hard on the ski industry in Pennsylvania’s Poconos and beyond.

Last winter, temperatures averaged 34.3 degrees by the end of February — nearly 6 degrees above normal for the Scranton region.  About a foot less snow dropped than normal.  Temperatures even soared into the 70s in February.

The 2015-16 winter was even milder, averaging 35.1 degrees, nearly 6.6 degrees above normal.  Snowfall was about 19 inches below normal.

It’s too early to call this season a rousing success, though its start has been encouraging. Blue Mountain usually doesn’t open until the second week of December, so the late-November start was an especially hopeful sign, Yingling said.

The maximum temperature this month so far for Scranton has been 24, according to the National Weather Service.  There have been a few inches of snow for the month, with most of that falling on Thursday, but snow-making machines have been cranking out a deep base at the resorts.

Skiers faced bitter conditions this weekend, with wind chills dipping to 15 below zero early Saturday, and the day’s high expected to reach just 6 degrees.

But the week ahead looks more promising with snow likely Monday and temperatures in the more tolerable, yet still snow-friendly, low 30s.

“The colder temperatures with high gusts of wind has affected us a little bit,” Yingling said. “But last week it was absolutely freezing and people were here. We were slammed again this week.  I think that, because of the mild winters the past two years, people don’t care [about the cold] and just want to hit the slopes again.”

She said the mountain is also attracting more groups — especially millennials — taking advantage of a new family-and-friends lessons package.

“I don’t have numbers off the top of my head,” Yingling said. “But I can tell you just general attendance is up significantly from last year.”

Jim Tust, of Shawnee Mountain, closer to the Delaware Water Gap, agrees indicators are good.  Shawnee, too, was able to open Thanksgiving weekend.  Two seasons ago, it didn’t open until January because the weather was so mild.

Shawnee, where skiing usually goes on past sundown, closed at 5 p.m. Thursday because of high winds and brutally low temperatures.  Other resorts also limited hours. Tust said Shawnee plans to remain open through the weekend, but expects he won’t see big crowds because of the cold.

“Things were going very well until about New Year’s Day,” Tust said. “I think the cold has started to wear on some people. I think our numbers are not where we want them, but they are still good.”

He’s feeling more optimistic about the coming week’s forecast.

“People realize the snow conditions are just excellent,” Tust said, “with powder and packed powder.  The product is good — we just need nature to back off a bit.”

Dave Schoneker, a member of the Eastern Pennsylvania Ski Council, agrees that things are better.

“Certainly the cold winter and early snow in the East is making for a good beginning to the ski season at the eastern resorts, both in the Poconos and New England,” said Schoneker, whose group had to reschedule its Council Cup Race last March because it was too hot.

Rick Cordisco, owner of Pocono Mountain Lakes Realty in Blakeslee, says he’s seen a definite uptick in ski house rentals. He said he’s also seen more crowded eateries and convenience stores.

“Absolutely. It is directly related to the weather,” Cordisco said.

He doesn’t believe plunging temperatures will hamper skiers much because “they are a certain breed” that love the cold.  The milder weather is much worse, he said.

“The year before last was pretty terrible,” he said. “When people are out golfing, they’re not thinking ski.”

Despite the current chill, scientists caution that the long-term trend still is for temperatures to get warmer, due to climate change. But as the past week has shown, weather conditions are short-term.

And the Poconos ski industry is making the best of it for now.