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Whiteface to open on Thanksgiving

XC ski centers now open in Lake Placid

November 23, 2016
By ANTONIO OLIVERO and ANDY FLYNN ( , Lake Placid News

WILMINGTON - Growing up just outside of Plattsburgh and tagging along to ski at Whiteface Mountain with his father, still a ski patroller to this day, Aaron Kellett would bring a sandwich in his pocket, his lunch for the day.

As a kid skiing down Whiteface's trails, he said he could care less about what the food tasted like in the lodge of the ski center. But the first year Kellett moved up to a managerial role here, he learned just how important coffee is to a skier.

"It's so much more of an experience," Kellett said inside the warm confines of his office at Whiteface while a winter storm blitzed the mountain with wind and snow Monday, Nov. 21. "Guests want to have great food, watch their kids take lessons. It's a little more than what it was 15 to 20 years ago, even."

Article Photos

Crews at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center were making snow when this photo was taken Monday, Nov. 21.
(Provided photo — ORDA/Whiteface Lake Placid)

In his 16th year working at Whiteface and fourth year as general manager, Kellett is tasked with leading a crew of about 70 staff members through one of the more important winters in Whiteface history.

Last winter's unseasonably warm weather and paltry natural snowfall resulted in a winter season that was the worst on record for Whiteface, according to the annual report of the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates the facility.

The industry as a whole reported average decreases in visitation of about 28 percent, and Whiteface wasn't spared, as total skier days for April 1, 2015, to March 31, 2016 dropped to 167,501 from 216,219 in 2014-15, the lowest for Whiteface since 2011-12 and the second lowest in seven years.

Total yearly revenues dropped to $7,698,359 from $9,549,752 in 2014-15 for Whiteface as ORDA overall saw its operating revenues drop 25 percent from the year prior, to $8.8 million.

But in an industry predicated on the uncontrollable element that is the weather, that's what receiving 58 inches of natural snow and more than 17 inches of rain compared to a typical average of more than 100 inches of snow can result in.

Looking out at the rolling snow squalls ravaging a ski center that had more than a foot of snow atop Little Whiteface Monday morning, Kellett and company hope this will be a bounce-back winter as they gear up to open on Thanksgiving Day.

"It's a very promising start to the winter," said Kellett, who used climbing skins to ski The Follies on Monday. "There's some good snow to be found, some wind out there, too. All in all, it's nothing but a gift for us with this natural snow. I feel like this is the biggest storm we have had in two years. It seems like any storm that came around last year kind of skirted us and went north.

"Morale for everyone jumps when the snow comes, especially leading into opening weekend. Everybody was watching this storm, talking about it on Friday."

Though Whiteface opened a day early last year, on Thanksgiving, Kellett said the mountain was fortunate to get an early blast of cold nights and precipitation to facilitate snowmaking that enabled the mountain to stay open through a warm and dry December, an accomplishment some other mountains failed at. He remembered last year looking out of his office window on Christmas Eve with just one 10-foot wide trail down the Mixing Bowl while the rest of the region was snowless.

Kellett said this week's winter storm combined with the stretch of rain a couple of weeks back that drastically helped both the natural and artificial snow situation at the mountain. The rain storm boosted the water levels in the West Branch of the AuSable River, where the mountain draws its water for snowmaking, by 30 percent.

As a result, there were more than 80 snowguns running on the mountain Monday, the crew hiking with crampons to locations such as the Little Whiteface Mountain trail to cover some of the ski center's more popular trails from the more than 1,000 locations where the crew can run its guns. Kellett said the plan for opening day is to have the trails at Excelsior, Summit Express, Upper Valley, Lower Valley, Fox and Mixing Bowl open, with the possibilities of other trails as well such as Lower Northway.

While the snow has fallen and the message has been sent out about opening day, crews of carpenters have worked feverishly on a major modification of the ski center's ticket area. It has changed to a horseshoe shape from an L-shape, something Kellett said he hopes improves flow and efficiency for customers. It'll combine with two new booths outside of the ski center where customers who purchased tickets online can more easily scan a piece of paper to obtain their lift ticket.

All in all, Kellett said Whiteface understands the future of the ski center is about cultivating a ski resort that strikes a balance between thrill-seeking skiers and families coming for an all-inclusive destination vacation experience. That includes more of an investment in The Cloudspin Bar and Grill and the Bear Den Lodge at Bear Den Mountain. And with the planned return of Winter Jam NYC on Jan. 23 in Manhattan's Central Park after the event was cancelled last year, Kellett is hopeful the message goes beyond the Blue Line that there is plenty of snow and other things to do at Whiteface this winter.

"We definitely want to make more money," he said, "but we also have a responsibility to the community and guests to make sure to provide a great experience, and ultimately we want everyone to have a great experience, whether an expert or your first time.

"There's nothing we can do to not have a big awesome mountain," he added. "That's already there. The hard part for us is getting a great learning environment and learning terrain, that's what we are focusing on."


Cross-country skiing

With more than a foot of snow on the ground, it was enough to allow ORDA officials at the Olympic Sports Complex to open the Mount Van Hoevenberg Cross-Country Ski Center Monday, Nov. 21. Trails were groomed, track was set, and 11 of the facility's 18 trails were open by Tuesday morning, when the total accumulation from snowstorm was measured at 18 inches, according to officials.

Cross-country skiing was available at the Craig Wood Golf Course on Sunday, and the Cascade Cross-Country Ski Center opened Monday with more than a foot of fresh powder.


Extending the seasons

Even after an unseasonably warm winter last year, springtime offered an extended season for downhill skiers, as Whiteface Mountain stayed open an additional week after Easter, closing on Sunday, April 17.

As for opening days, ORDA has made the most of early-season cold weather and snow for the past several years. This year, they will open a day early, on Thursday, Nov. 24. Last year, Whiteface crews began making snow during the cold nights on Nov. 13, and the ski center opened on Thanksgiving Day, a day earlier than expected. In 2014, conditions were good enough to open on Nov. 16, 12 days ahead of schedule. Whiteface opened on Nov. 15 - two weeks ahead of schedule - for the 2013-14 season and Nov. 17 - six days ahead of schedule - for the 2012-13 season.

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