Mount Lemmon ski season shot to hell, with slim chance of freezing over

SUMMERHAVEN, Ariz. — If you’ve been waiting patiently for local ski season to finally start this year, it may be time to put your boots and poles back in the shed.

Sure, there’s a little snow on the ground up here on the mountaintop. The main hill has a few thin patches here and there, with some snow deep enough to make a snowball or temporarily hold a footprint’s shape. But as of Sunday March 2, Mount Lemmon Ski Valley – the southernmost ski destination in the continental United States – hadn’t opened its slopes at all. The last time they couldn’t open for skiing: 60 years ago.

“We’ve owned this place since 1969, and it’s the first time we haven’t been able to allow skiing since I’ve been here,” said Jay Davies, who owns Mount Lemmon Ski Valley with her husband and son.

The main hill at Mount Lemmon Ski Valley on Feb. 28, 2014. The valley has not been able to open for skiing because snow is sparse this year. Lauren Shores
The main hill at Mount Lemmon Ski Valley on Feb. 28, 2014. The valley has not been able to open for skiing because snow is sparse this year. (photo by Lauren Shores)

This weekend’s snow forecast for the Catalinas might have fooled you – some meteorologists predicted that the high elevations would get up to a foot of snow by Sunday. At other ski destinations in the West, this is peak ski (and snowboard) season. However, Mount Lemmon got only about two inches of snow on Saturday and might get a “trace” amount on Sunday, according to SnowForecast.com. The employees said it needs at least 15 to 20 inches of snow before it’s safe to ski.

“If we got snow a few days in a row then we might open the slopes, but not yet,” said Colton Shunk, a chair lift operator.

Davies blames the lack of snow on the drought, which also plagues Tucson, more than 9,000 feet beneath the Mount Lemmon summit. As of Feb. 25, the United States Drought Monitor had designated the Tucson area as a region of “Extreme Drought.” This means that it is suffering major crop or pasture losses and widespread water shortages and restrictions. Tucson did get an estimated 0.65 inches of rain on Saturday, according to The Weather Channel.

“It’s not that it’s not cold out – you can tell it’s cold out here – but the air is dry,” Davies said of conditions on Mount Lemmon, which had a high of 64 degrees and low of 37 degrees this weekend.

The valley normally gets 200 to 300 skiers and snowboarders on the chairlift (“skyride”) on a busy ski day. Open all year, the skyride is year-round more of a tourist attraction than a mode of ski-lift; patrons pay $10 for a relaxing 30 minute ride to the top of a hill covered in flora or snow, depending on the season. However, Shunk estimates that they’ve had 50 to 100 people on the skyride per day this year. When there is enough snow to ski, the valley also sells ski rentals and runs a ski school and patrol – but obviously those haven’t been put to use this season.

At first glance, one might think that not having snow has hurt (well, devastated) the ski destination. The ski ticket windows are shut and locked, and no one has rented any ski equipment all year. The already small parking lot has many empty spots. The gift shop is empty, except for a cashier and two wandering cats named Kitty and Cat. And the chairlift is nearly empty – the chilly ride up the mountain is completely silent until you reach the exposed top, where you might hear a few gusts of wind.

A sign at the top of Mount Lemmon Ski Valley on Feb. 28, 2014. Many of the ski runs have little to no snow. Lauren Shores
A sign at the top of Mount Lemmon Ski Valley on Feb. 28, 2014. Many of the ski runs have little to no snow. (photo by Lauren Shores)

But surprisingly, business isn’t so bad, the operators say.

“Skiing puts us on the profit-board, but it’s fun to come here anyway – we’re open all year, and people like the skyride, plus there are more tourists this year,” said Davies. “Tourists usually don’t come during ski season. But the restaurant [Iron Horse Restaurant] is always busy.”

And although peak ski season is nearly over, hope does spring eternal, even on a ski area bereft of skiiable snow.

“I remember people skied in May once,” said Davies. “It was sometime in the 70s. It snowed on the tulips.”

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