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Land of enchantment, a snow-making ski state

New Mexico ski resorts receive upgrades, new features ready for the winter season

Ski resorts around New Mexico will have plenty of upgrades and new features to show off this season, including a new eight-person gondola at Ski Apache Resort, a new beginner’s area and expanded tubing hill at Taos Ski Valley and a zipline open for the first winter at Angel Fire Resort.

In addition, Pajarito Mountain Ski Area has finished repairing lifts damaged during the 2011 Las Conchas fire, and Ski Santa Fe has doubled the size of its La Casa Lodge.

“We’ve probably done more construction in New Mexico than any other state … not all because we wanted to,” George Brooks, executive director of the industry group Ski New Mexico, said, referring to work required because of fire damage.

The upgrades and fresh natural snow earlier this month have ski industry officials feeling optimistic about the coming season.

“We’re looking for a good year,” Brooks said, adding that industry leaders hope to top the 850,000 skier visits recorded last year.

The ski business always is tricky with no guarantees that Mother Nature will deliver snow-or even weather cold enough for snow-making.

Resort operators find ways to cope.

“You just never know this far out,” said Geoff Goins, owner of the Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski and Snowshoe Area near Red River. “We just make sure we don’t have a lot of stuff we have to pay for in December.”

That means Enchanted Forest, which has no snow-making capability, will wait until the Christmas holiday time when snow and revenue are more certain to bring in new T-shirts, for example, Goins said.

Most other ski areas can open about half of their trails with man-made snow, Brooks said, and even in the middle of a winter with good snow, more than two-thirds of skiers are on trails with man-made snow.

The forecast for the 2012-13 winter started out well.

But a much-anticipated El Niño climate pattern stalled, leaving New Mexico and southern Colorado with 50-50 odds of an above or below average snow season.

“It is still kind of a toss up,” said Ed Polasko, a meteorologist and hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “We were hoping El Niño would deliver an early fall-winter season and that hasn’t happened.”

The good news is that the last the two years of La Niña patterns in which winter temperatures generally are higher than average and precipitation below normal are over, and “there’s no reason to think that the storm track won’t find us again,” Polasko said.

In another take on the weather forecast, Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort reported this fall on its web page that the Farmer’s Almanac predicts colder than normal temperatures and above average precipitation from December through March, ideal for skiers and snowboarders.

The resort was the first in New Mexico to open again this year with a Nov. 17 start.

Workers fired up the snow guns on Oct. 8, the earliest snow-making start in Sipapu’s history, and continued making snow for weeks.

Red River Ski Area reported six inches of new snow in mid-November and opened Wednesday with special activities planned for the holiday weekend.

A frozen turkey race today will see contestants sitting on frozen birds to slide down the hill.

A “Thanksjibbing” rail jam is open to skiers and snowboarders on the Gold Rush Hill on Saturday.

Prices will be discounted at Red River until the resort opens full-time Dec. 14.

Red River is kicking off new snow-coach dinner tours this season, with heated coaches with seating for 12, taking diners to the mountaintop Tip Restaurant.

The resort also has added online ticket sales and rentals to eliminate long lines at the mountain and replaced outdated trail signs that skiers complained were hard to see, said marketing coordinator Sarah Dorrance.

“Now we have big, huge awesome trail signs,” she said.

Taos Ski Valley, Ski Apache Resort and Ski Santa Fe all are planning to open today, Brooks said.

Taos put in a new beginner’s hill and lift this summer at Pioneer’s Glade and will move its lessons there, said marketing manager Adrianna Blake.

Conditions hadn’t been cold enough for snow-making until about a week ago, but “if it’s freezing for 24 hours, we can make huge amounts of snow,” Blake said.

She said Taos will be open Thursdays through Sundays for the first three weeks of the season with the main lift open, providing access to about 15 trails.

Ski Santa Fe has added more than 12,000-square-feet to its La Casa Lodge and has a new rental shop and expanded sports shop as well as a new food court and coffee bar with seating for more than 650 guests.

Ski Apache has spent $15 million for three new chairlifts and a new gondola lift that replaces an older, smaller one.

The gondola climbs 1,646 feet to the mountain’s peak in just eight minutes, almost twice as fast as its predecessor.

“We are happy to invest in something that has proven such a valuable asset not just to the tribe but to the surrounding communities as well, particularly considering the effects on the region from the Little Bear Fire,” Frederick Chino Sr., president of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, said in a statement.

“During the 2011-2012 season, more than 130,000 people visited Ski Apache, and we look forward to seeing that number continue to climb with the addition of these new lifts.”

Angel Fire Resort will keep its new zipline open this winter, giving skiers and snowboarders a chance to soar 20 stories above the forest floor when they’re not hitting the slopes.

“That’s new and different, another fun thing for people to do at the resort besides skiing,” Brooks said.

Angel Fire also is continuing to expand its cross-country terrain.

“We’ll be growing the Nordic Center gradually this season to 17 kilometers of groomed and maintained trails,” said marketing manager Andrea Boutelle. “It will be the perfect venue for cross-country skiers and teams to come to train at elevation.”