It eventually became apparent that Chrome Sanders was walking — not snowboarding — down the slope at Snow Trails near Mansfield Thursday afternoon, his board in his hands.
Sanders reached the bottom and bent down to catch his breath. Thursday was his first time snowboarding, he said, and the third run of the day had got the best of him.
But after having become part of a small group of people who ski or board — about 9.4 million as of 2017, or less than 3% of the U.S. population, according to Powder magazine — Sanders wasn’t ready to drop out, even after he had “just fell hard.”
“I’ll do it again, yeah,” said Sanders, 15, who traveled to Ohio from Evansville, Indiana, with a friend’s family to stay at a nearby cabin and ski. “That’s the only time I fell, really.”
Ohio’s’ weather over much of December didn’t do much to conjure up thoughts of skiing, but the state’s ski resorts have been open for business, thanks to expensive investments in snow-making systems.
“People love it to be wintry to feel like you want to go skiing,” said Nate Wolleson, Snow Trails marketing manager.
But when it warms up and rains, people forget about going skiing, he said.
In fact, Snow Trails is off to a record year, with its earliest weekend opening day, Nov. 22, since it opened in 1961, Wolleson said. It opened for all-week business on Dec. 16, he said.
Its earliest open before this season was in 2000, when it fired up the lifts on Nov. 24 and remained open a record 107 days, he said.
This season, it began making snow on Nov. 7, allowing it to grow into long piles, “wales” known to the workers there, that keep the snow protected until it’s ready to be spread out later by five “snowcats,” the tank-treaded tractors that groom the hill.
Several years ago Snow Trails installed a $160,000 water-cooling system, which looks like a giant version of a whole-house air-conditioner, that further chills 54-degree well water before it is shot into the air under the pressure from four 300-horsepower pumps. The cooler water produces a nicer skiing snow, Wolleson said, and also allows Snow Trails to make snow in temperatures as high as 29 degrees, two degrees higher than previously.
“Whenever we have an opportunity to make snow we make a ton of it, and as often as we can to build a great base,” Wolleson said.
Snow-making allows Ohio’s ski operations to weather the warmth and rain.
“It’s definitely been a little bit too warm,” said Sam Collins, marketing director at Mad River Mountain near Marysville.
But Mad River’s 130 snow guns, which can transform all of its slopes from green to white in 72 hours, have made up for it, Collins said.
Mad River and 16 other ski centers were purchased by Vail Resorts of Colorado last summer from Peak Resorts Inc. for $264 million, including Ohio’s Alpine Valley in Chesterland, Geauga County, east of Cleveland; and Boston Mills and Brandywine, both situated between Akron and Cleveland.
That means skiers who purchased the Vail Epic Pass, which allows them to ski the several-thousand-foot vertical drops of Colorado, Utah and California can now also ski the 300-foot-vertical at Mad River.
And they are, Collins said.
“We’re seeing more visits from people who maybe live out west who come home for Christmas,” and some locals are now going west and east to use their passes, Collins said. “It goes both ways.”
The weather will continue to challenge Ohio’s ski industry for at least the next couple weeks, said John Franks, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington.
“For the first half of the month we are solidly looking at above normal temperatures,” meaning they could potentially make snow at night, but not during the day, Franks said.
“We don’t reach the normals,” Franks said. “We don’t come close to them.”