Prior to the recent descent into more wintry temperatures, west Oakland County had been experiencing unseasonably warm weather for the month of January, meaning that snow has not been a common sight this winter and the white stuff that has accumulated has had a short lifespan — not exactly the weather conditions to bring to mind cozy ski lodges and hitting the slopes. However, a lack of natural snowfall hasn’t been a problem for local ski slopes.
“We have snow over 100 percent of the area, and we’re averaging about a 40-inch base,” said Gail Winterhalter, the operations manager at Alpine Valley Ski Area in White Lake Township.
The lack of snow is not a big deal, according to Rob Shick, the general manager at the Pine Knob Ski and Snowboard Resort in Clarkston, which maintains a variable snow base between 18 and 40 inches.
“The temperatures are worse,” he said. “We have 100 percent snow-making capability. Snowing or not, every inch of the hill is covered.”
“(The lack of natural snow) isn’t so much a big deal,” Winterhalter said. “Natural snow is a help, and it’s nice to have it on top. But we can make snow. We’ve been making snow over the past week now. We are making snow around the clock for as long as we can so that we can keep enough good snow on the ground when we do have warmer temperatures.”
Earlier this season, Alpine Valley invested in an underground snow-making pipe to improve the ski area’s snow-making capabilities.
“It doesn’t take us a long time to cover the hill. When the ground is frozen, it piles up relatively quickly,” said Shick who said they have about 108 snow making machines.
While temperatures at or below freezing are necessary for making snow, temperatures in the teens or 20s are ideal for producing snow.
“We need to stay below freezing,” Winterhalter said. “Around 32 or 33 degrees is pushing it. Obviously, the temperatures that are perfect are these colder ones we’ve been having …”
Low humidity and low wind are also helpful, according to Shick.
And copious amounts of water are needed.
“It takes millions of gallons,” Shick said. “In one night running everything, we’re pumping 4,000 gallons per minute. And a typical snow-making shift is 12 hours, so that makes it about 2.88 million gallons in one night.”
But unlike the lack of snow, warm temperatures and rain, on the other hand, have been problematic for area ski slopes.
“The warm temperatures and the rain, that hurts,” Shick said. “We hate that.”
Winterhalter agreed, saying that while the temperatures and rain have been a challenge, Alpine Valley has had no trouble compensating.
Aside from having to close completely some days and being only open for half of a day on others, business has been decent, according to Oakland County ski resort managers.
“Periodically, here and there, we will close,” Shick said. “But it’s never because of a lack of snow. We close when it’s raining because no one comes. No one likes to ski in the rain, but we’ll be open the next day.”
Winterhalter estimates that Alpine Valley has only been closed two or three days due to rain. The hard economic times haven’t deterred skiers and snowboarders, either.
“I haven’t seen (a slowdown) here,” Winterhalter said. “It’s probably because we’re not a destination resort. Being a day skiing facility has helped.”
“I think the weather is more of a factor. I really do,” he said. “People still want to get out and ski. When the weather is good, we are right back at normal ski numbers.”
A slight challenge has been making people aware that there is snow on the trails and runs.
“Our members know that when there isn’t snow, we still have snow on the hill,” Winterhalter said. “But first-timers to our ski area may not understand that. However, when we’ve been open we’ve had nice crowds.”
“It’s just convincing people that we have snow,” said Schick, adding that the No. 1 question asked when people call Pine Knob is whether they have snow. “Just because there is no snow in their backyard doesn’t mean there is no snow in ours.”
“It’s helping a lot with social media,” Shick said. “On our website, we’ve also got a webcam that updates once every second so people can look and see if there is snow on the hill.”
A little natural snow can go a long way towards improving business, as well.
“I think a lot of it is that, if they don’t have snow in their front yard, they don’t think of skiing or snowboarding,” Winterhalter said. “I think it’s a bit psychological. When there’s natural snow on the ground, it makes people think about skiing and that helps business.”
“Natural snow is advertising,” Shick said. “There is nothing as good for business as natural snow. As soon as there’s an inch of (natural) snow, then everyone comes out skiing. It didn’t affect the snow on the hill but it definitely affects customers’ perception.”
What follows is a look at Oakland County ski resorts and what they offer.
Alpine Valley, White Lake
Alpine Valley has a total of nine capacity chairs and 25 ski runs, with 11 for beginners, six for intermediate skiers, and eight for advanced skiers.
The hill’s vertical drop is 300 feet, while its elevation is 1,210 feet above sea level. Its longest run is 2,000 feet.
The ski area also offers four rope tows and a WonderCarpet to convey visitors.
Alpine Valley’s season runs from December to March, and the 2011-12 season individual rates are as follows:
• Lift tickets are $32, rope tows are $26, and ski/snowboard rentals are $23 Monday to Friday days (10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.).
• Sunday through Thursday evenings (3 to 10 p.m.) a lift ticket is $33, a rope tow is $26, and ski/snowboard rentals are $23, whereas Sunday through Thursday nights (6 to 10 p.m.) those prices are $32, $25, and $23, respectively.
• A day session (9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) on the weekends and holidays are $39, $28, and $25, while all day and evening (9 a.m. to 11 p.m.) prices are $49, no tow ropes available, and $25.
• Friday and Saturday evenings (3 to 11 p.m.) cost $37 for a lift ticket, $28 for a rope tow, and $25 for ski/snowboard rentals.
Snowboard rentals include both the board and boots, while ski rental includes skis, boots, and poles.
Helmets can be rented for $9.
Rentals for children (5-years-old and under) are $16 on weekdays and weekends.
Alpine Valley also offers group rates for parties of 20 or more.
Beginner ski and snowboard group lessons for adults (15-years-old and older) are priced at $20 on Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m., noon, and 3:30 p.m.
Private lessons are available for $45 for an hour, while semi-private lessons are priced at $35 for an hour.
Clinics for all ages featuring slalom and giant slalom skiing are held on the Everest slope on Sunday mornings from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. for $20 each, with a discounted $35 lift ticket available for the clinics.
Alpine Valley hosts an adult racing league on Tuesdays involving team racing with three to six members per team on the Everest slope.
Alpine Valley offers youth programs, including Junior Ski Carvers for children ages 5 and 6 for $30, and Ski Carvers and Snow Riders for children ages 7 to 14 for $30, with both programs held on weekends.
There is also a Ski-Patch program for students between 7-years-old and 18-years-old who aren’t in a school ski club or can’t participate on their club’s designated evening.
Alpine Valley features a lodge complete with a cafeteria and a lounge with three fireplaces.
Winterhalter said that items such as hamburgers and hot dogs are served in the cafeteria, while the lounge has a wide selection of beverages, including alcoholic drinks.
Alpine Valley is located at 6775 Highland Road in White Lake Township. Call 248-887-2180 for more information or visit the resort’s website at skialpinevalley.com.
Pine Knob, Clarkston
Pine Knob has a 300-foot vertical hill with a total of 17 runs, six chair lifts, four tow ropes, and two WonderCarpets of 100 feet and 300 feet in length.
Pine Knob’s lift ticket prices are $32 for individuals and $26 for the beginner hill from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on evenings Sunday through Thursday.
The prices increase to $39 for individuals and $31 for the beginner hill from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings, and from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.
Children 6-years-old and under receive a half-off discount with an adult lift and rental.
An all-day/all-area pass will cost $45 on a weekday and $52 on the weekend.
Ski and snowboard rentals are priced at $26 and a helmet rental is $10.
There is also “Tremendous Tuesday,” where lift tickets are $20 and rentals are $26.
Pine Knob also offers a “Kinderspark” program on Saturdays for youngsters between 5- and 10-years-old from 1:30 to 3 p.m. at $35 a lesson, along with a $16 beginner area lift ticket and a $16 fee for a ski rental.
Pine Knob also has a Ski-Patch program for students.
Private lessons are available at prices ranging from $50 for an hour or $250 for six lessons.
Semi-private lessons are priced at $50 for the first person and $22 for each additional person.
The resort also co-hosts a NASTAR racing league with Mt. Holly on Sunday mornings and also hosted a Thunderbolt camp for young racers last December, as well as Junior Development and Middle School racing programs to prepare youngsters for high school skiing and amateur competition.
Pine Knob has two dining areas where items ranging from soups and salads, pizza and subs, yogurt and homemade baked goods are served.
The resort’s Off The Wall lounge has three fireplaces and a variety of beverages.
The Pine Knob Ski and Snowboard Resort is located at 7778 Sashabaw Road in Clarkston. The resort can be reached by calling 248-625-0800 or visiting its website at skipineknob.com.
Mt. Holly, Holly
Mt. Holly has 19 runs ranging from beginner levels to advanced, with a maximum vertical drop of 350 feet.
The resort also includes seven chair lifts, five rope tows and two WonderCarpets.
Mt. Holly’s lift ticket prices are $32 for individuals and $26 for the beginner hill from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 3 to 10 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday evenings.
The prices increase to $39 for individuals and $31 for the beginner hill from 3 to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings and from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.
Children 6-years-old and under receive a half-off discount with an adult lift and rental.
An all-day/all-area pass costs $45 Mondays through Thursdays and $52 on Friday, Saturdays and Sundays, and on holidays.
Ski and snowboard rentals are priced at $26 and a helmet rental is priced at $10.
Mt. Holly also offers a “Tremendous Tuesday” special with all area tickets costing $20 in the morning session. There are also $28 “Men’s Day” lift tickets available on Wednesday mornings and $28 “Ladies Day” tickets on Thursday mornings.
The resort hosts programs for youngsters, including Kinderspark lessons, along with Thunderbolt racing and Ski-Patch programs for students.
The resort also hosts a seven-week Monday Night Coors Race League with teams of 3 to 6 racers.
Mt. Holly has a cafeteria that serves snacks ranging from hamburgers and hot dogs to chicken sandwiches.
The resort also has a lounge with a wide selection of beverages, including alcoholic drinks, as well as a meeting room and a full-service ski shop.
Mt. Holly Ski and Snowboard Resort is located at 13536 S. Dixie Highway in Holly. The resort can be reached by calling 248-634-8269 or visiting its website at skimtholly.com.