PRECIOUS PARK: Ski centers adapt, invest in the face of warming winter trends

Whiteface Mountain workers begin snowmaking for the season on Nov. 13. (Provided photo — ORDA)

LAKE PLACID — Lake Placid and its surrounding communities rely heavily on snow — for national and international sports competitions, sleigh rides and other experiences that bring tourists here, and ski nights, carnivals and other community activities that bring locals together in the frigid winter air.

But the planet is warming in an upward trend, and it’s not showing signs of tipping down. A September paper published by Paul Smith’s College professor Curt Stager found that Adirondack winters are becoming shorter and milder, with the Blue Line potentially losing snow and ice altogether before the end of the next century.

Stager writes that, from a human perspective, there are cultural and economic losses that could accompany milder winters and less snow. That could manifest through the weakening of this region’s winter sports culture. A recent study shows that Lake Placid would be only one of four sites that could still support an Olympic Winter Games by the year 2050, according to Stager. Lake Placid likely wouldn’t remain on that list by 2100.

” … (W)arming due to the high GHG emissions scenario could exclude national to international-level sporting events from the Adirondacks by the end of this century,” Stager writes.

At the root of this region’s sports culture are Lake Placid’s ski centers. They’re wrapped up in this community’s winter traditions, both economically and culturally, and they’re faced with a fight or flight decision in the face of an ever-warming climate: either invest, or adapt.

A groomer is seen on one of Whiteface Mountain's ski trails shortly after it opened for the season on Nov. 19. (Provided photo — ORDA)


At ski centers at Whiteface and Mount Van Hoevenburg, along with Gore and Belleayre mountains — venues managed by the state Olympic Regional Development Authority — the state has taken snow matters into its own hands. Artificial snowmaking has become ORDA’s top solution to a warming climate.

When asked what a winter without snowmaking would look like for ORDA’s ski centers, CEO Mike Pratt said, “Well, we wouldn’t be open very often.”

Mount Van Hoevenberg is the site of Nordic skiing trails in the winter. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Warming winters have made ORDA more dependent on snowmaking. A winter without snowmaking at these ski centers would result in a sharp financial blow — 80% of ORDA’s revenue comes from its ski centers, according to Pratt. To salvage the shrinking ski seasons, Pratt sees the investments in snowmaking as the most sustainable and efficient solution.

For its snowmaking operations at Whiteface this year, the ski center installed 35,000 feet of new pipe, 160 high-efficiency snow guns and 245 new hydrants. Pratt said ORDA has spent $4 million on snowmaking this year at Whiteface alone, where ORDA regularly operates more than 100 snow guns. Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced that the state has invested $550 million in the area’s winter sports facilities, “giving them the lift they need ahead of the World University Games” in January.

Pratt likened ORDA’s snowmaking system upgrades to buying LED light bulbs. ORDA was investing in newer, more efficient technology instead of reaching for an old bulb that uses more energy and lasts half as long. He said the new snowmaking guns make more snow in less time than the old guns.


Craig Wood Golf Course in Lake Placid, and the former Scotts Cobble ski center, will be the site of cross-country skiing this winter. The Jackrabbit Trail also runs through this property, owned by the town of North Elba. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Pratt believes a “comprehensive evaluation” of ORDA’s practices in sustainability — from something as simple as screwing in an LED light bulb to something as large scale as installing solar systems that provide power to Gore and Whiteface mountains — is needed to address the threat of climate change.

“It’s little things, it’s big things, but we’re all trying to make ourselves as sustainable as possible and fight the impacts and the threat of climate change head-on,” he said, adding that ORDA is looking to offer “more vibrant” summer operations when it comes to long-term planning for the effects of climate change.

And for a winter sports center that doesn’t have the budget to invest in snowmaking systems — like the Cascade Welcome Center — the need to adopt more warm-weather programming and activities is more pressing.

At the new Cascade Welcome Center, which opened for the ski season on Nov. 11, Adirondack Mountain Club Director of Communications Director Ben Brosseau said ADK likely won’t invest in a snowmaking system. The organization is a nonprofit supported by a combination of membership dues, private and business donations and foundation and government grants. They don’t get the millions of dollars in state funding like ORDA does. When it comes to investments in climate change resiliency, Brosseau said ADK would want to use its funds for program and trail expansions, among other possibilities.

“Cascade Welcome Center is much more than a ski center,” Brosseau said.

ADK staff offer information for hikers passing by on state Route 73, along with outdoor programming and events that make the revamped cross-country ski center a multi-use haven for hikers, which Brosseau believes gives ADK a solid foundation for adaptation to climate change.

“As a resource for outdoor education and recreation, we have a lot more room there to adapt to climate change than other ski centers,” Brosseau said. “This could mean anything from restructuring trails to allow for other forms of recreation, to expanding the types of programs that we offer, to other things.”

Give and take

High Peaks Cyclery co-owner Brian Delaney is reviving the former Scotts Cobble Ski Center name this ski season by opening up 10 kilmometers of lighted cross-country ski trails on the Craig Wood Golf Course and starting after-school programming there. But without the traditional snowfall to support winter activities there in the future, he said there could be more costs to both the ski center and visitors.

He said he’d consider investing in a small-scale snowmaking system. Not one with multiple guns along the train — more like a snow gun hooked up to a compressor and a water source, which would allow Delaney to stockpile snow and use a front loader to disperse a saved pile of snow across the trails. But he’d have to seek permission from the town of North Elba to install the system since it owns the land, he said, and the system would be “hugely expensive.” He said he’d probably have to charge people to ski to counter the costs. Right now, Delaney plans to allow residents of the Tri-Lakes to ski for free at Scott’s Cobble. For other visitors, he plans to keep season passes at around $50.

Dealing with reality

Barkeater Trails Alliance has developed and maintained mountain biking and cross-country ski trails at the former Scotts Cobble ski center since 2015, according to BETA Executive Director Josh Wilson, when the town received a grant for new trail construction there. But BETA’s stake in local ski trails extends throughout the region in the form of the Jackrabbit Trail, which BETA maintains. The Jackrabbit Trail travels from Keene to Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Paul Smiths and Lake Clear, connecting some of the area’s popular cross-country ski centers along the way, including Scotts Cobble, Cascade and the Paul Smith’s College VIC.

Wilson said BETA has already seen the effects of climate change with shortened ski seasons on the Jackrabbit Trail, but he said snowmaking isn’t in the cards for BETA. He said that making snow is a “Catch 22” — the artificial snow preserves skiing activities in the face of climate change, but the snowmaking process is energy and resource consumptive.

When it comes to building new trails, the alliance is staying practical in the face of a warmer future. While BETA had “big plans” for backcountry ski trails 20 years or so ago, Wilson said current priorities have shifted to being more thoughtful about building new trails that “might not last.”

“We’re not expanding ski trails anywhere near the pace that we are with mountain bike trails,” he said. “Part of that is understanding that, yeah, in 50 years, some of these things may not even be skiable anymore.”

In the meantime, Wilson believes there’s been a resurgence in skiing. He’s seen more young people getting involved in Nordic and backcountry skiing in recent years. And as ski centers south of the Adirondacks lose their snow sooner and leave Lake Placid’s ski centers as the last skiing destinations, he believes there could be a skiing boom here.

The greatest challenge

Snowmaking for ski centers might not be a practical solution to warm winters in the long run. And as time wears on and summer and year-round programming become more necessary to keep local ski centers afloat, there will be more than the economic detriments of climate change to deal with in this region. While most Adirondack species will continue to thrive by traveling north as the climate warms, according to Stager’s paper, human culture isn’t so mobile — and this region’s residents will be forced to reckon with life in the Adirondacks … beyond the days of abundant snow.

“As long-standing traditions associated with cold, snowy winters fade into the past,” Stager writes, “the cultural ecology of the human residents of the Adirondacks may well face the greatest existential challenges of all in a warming future.”

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