FLAGSTAFF – If it wasn’t for little more than a mile stretch of man-made snow spanning 25 acres atop the Arizona Snowbowl, one might think it was summer in Flagstaff.
It’s late November and the snow trail looks bleak among the surrounding greenery. But thanks to snow-making machines and freezing temperatures last weekend, ski and snowboard enthusiasts were able to hit the slopes Tuesday, the resort’s opening day.
On four of the 55 trails, that is. The rest of the trails will likely wait on help from Mother Nature.
Opening a sliver of trails is a matter of money. Wait until Christmas for real snow to cue the start of ski and snowboard season, or get it going by the Thanksgiving holiday.
Since 2013, Snowbowl has been able to open a handful of trails made entirely of man-made snow a month earlier than the typical arrival of snowfall, officials said.
“Our business model is to open on man-made snow every year from now on,” said J.R. Murray, Snowbowl general manager. “It takes the guess work out of it and all we need is colder temperatures.”
Once temperatures drop to freezing, the machines, which use treated recycled wastewater, can make one mile of snow about one foot deep in an hour, Murray said.
Last weekend, the temperatures at Snowbowl were just cold enough to use the machines. Employees worked through the coldest part of the night making enough snow to make enough snow to cover 25 acres, a fraction of the 210 acres available for skiers.
“Everybody benefits when we open, so when we sound the alarm, everybody has nothing but good thoughts,” Murray said.
The tourism business has helped pay for three new ski lifts over three years and will finance a new lodge and road improvements, he said. Snowbowl employs more than 500 people during peak season.
Recreational tourism in Flagstaff accounted for about $50 million of annual revenue in 2010, contributing to about 10 percent of that year’s annual economic impact, reports said.
Several business owners and local residents said they are thrilled the mountain is open.
“This is a culture for us. This is what we do and this is what we love to be a part of,” said Lynda Fleischer, owner of Altitudes Bar and Grill, a skier and snowboarder hangout spot in downtown Flagstaff.
Fleischer estimates her business revenues will get as much as a 30 percent boost this week because of the opening.
She’s also a ski instructor at Snowbowl and has been part of the Flagstaff skiing community for more than 35 years. In her experience, the mountain typically opens around mid-December.
“I would prefer traditional real snow, but the alternative is no snow at all,” Fleischer said. “So man-made snow is a go.”
Steven Cordovana, a senior at Northern Arizona University, has been snowboarding since his freshman year at the college and looks forward to the Snowbowl opening every year, but is concerned about the unusually warm temperatures Flagstaff has been experiencing.
“We are a little worried it will be a long, dry winter,” Cordovana said.
Last year was the Snowbowl’s longest season on record, lasting 147 days. The snow-making machines helped extend the season from November to May.
“Every season is slightly different,” Cordovana said. “As far as I’ve seen since I’ve been up here, we always get some snow. But last year was absolutely the most we have had in awhile.”
The Snowbowl team hopes to have all 55 trails open by Christmas with a combination of real and man-made snow.