In most of the United States, November is the official start of ski and snowboard season.
Yet at the highest altitudes (think Colorado) and the most northern climes (think Maine), the opening day race has begun.
The Colorado Derby
Each year, this is the question: Which Colorado resort will open first?
Arapahoe Basin has already fired up their snow guns and the resort has announced that they are just about ready to open any day now. The snowmakers at Loveland are also working over-time. Which one of these high-altitude neighbors along the Continental Divide will be first?
Or will it be Wolf Creek, a dark horse, long shot in the southern San Juans that can be blessed with plenty of powder before Halloween?
Last year, Loveland and A-Basin opened simultaneously during the last week of October, which was later than normal. Wolf Creek didn’t open until November 9th, but when they did, it was with 44” of natural snow.
UPDATE: Arapahoe Basin has officially kicked off the ski season by opening on Friday, October 21, 2016.
What About New England?
While Sunday River’s target opening day for 2016 isn’t yet set, they try to open as “soon as Mother Nature allows” and had a successful snowmaking test in late September.
Last season, Sunday River’s snowmakers were voted the 2016 HKD Snowmakers of the Year, even after one of the worst winters on record.
They clearly know what they’re doing.
Snowmaking Is Essential
October skiing is often dependent upon snowmaking, which is, in turn, dependent upon the weather.
This is snowmaking in the simplest terms: Water is pumped up the mountain to snow guns that spray small droplets of water into the air. Given proper conditions, the water droplets freeze and fall to ground as snow.
According to John Sellers of Loveland Ski Area, cold and dry weather is ideal for snowmaking. And while the temperatures don’t have to be below freezing for 24 hours at a time, resorts won’t start blowing snow overnight just to see it melt during the day.
Quality is key. Along with providing a good product to keep skiers and riders happy, snowmakers also focus on making snow that will form an excellent base for the entire season.
Why Ski Early Season?
1. It’s Real Skiing and Riding.
Rumors of a treacherous “white ribbon of death” notwithstanding, resorts pride themselves on providing an outstanding opening day experience.
“One of our big goals with opening is to remain open. We want to provide a continually improving ski experience,” explains Adrienne Saia Isaac of Arapahoe Basin.
This means that Arapahoe Basin won’t open until they have at least 18” of snow on the High Noon trail from mid-mountain down to the Black Mountain Express Lift.
Loveland aims for “tree-to-tree” coverage with at least 18” on their Opening Day run, a one-mile trail linking Catwalk, Mambo and Homerun.
This season, Sunday River is switching up their opening day terrain, moving it to Aurora Peak for top-to-bottom skiing and riding on the Northern Lights trail.
If you’ve thought of early season skiing as just a few turns amongst a crowd of thousands, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Still, you may want to get an early start to score the best overnight snow with the fewest people around.
2. It’s Fun.
Bluebird skies, warmer temperatures, chill attitudes and sunny beer gardens: October skiing has a lot in common with spring skiing.
With one big difference: rather than looking toward the end of ski season and celebrating what has been, October skiers and riders are feeling the stoke of a new winter season and looking forward to what will be.
October skiing is not about making the most turns or logging the most vert. It’s about having fun with friends and family, while scoring a bonus day (or days) on snow.
3. It’s a Good Time for a Gear Test.
If you’ve got new skis, a new snowboard or new boots, this is a perfect time to try your new gear.
Need to stop and readjust your boots? Need to slow down your turns to get the kinks out or to get the feel of a new board or skis?
No worries. Take all the time you need. This isn’t a powder day. Your friends will wait for you.
Two Options If You Must Ski Today
If all this talk of snow and skiing has you jonesing to ski or ride right now, you can.
At least you can if you live near Minneapolis or Denver.
In late September, Buck Hill, Minnesota opened a year-round outdoor ski surface. Using Neveplast, a silicon-based Italian product, Buck Hill now offers recreational skiing and riding, as well as race training, throughout the year.
Skiers and snowboarders can use their own equipment, although winter wax needs to be removed. Rental equipment is also available. Buck Hill recommends wearing long pants, long sleeve shirts, leather mittens or gloves and a helmet.
Colorado skiers and riders also have a new option: SNÖBAHN, an indoor training facility in Centennial, Colorado.
SNÖBAHN offers lessons and supervised training for skiers and riders of all levels. After opening in June, SNÖBAHN was immediately popular with beginners and never-evers.
With fall here and winter drawing close, the facility is seeing an upsurge in experienced skiers and riders coming in to tune up their skills, according to Sarah Bordon, a SNÖBAHN manager.
With no chairlift rides or lift lines, skiers can log about 21,000 vertical feet in 30 minutes on what are essentially downhill treadmills.
Detuned and dewaxed gear is provided, although guests can use their own boots and helmets if they are clean. Helmets are mandatory.